CauseScience weekly roundup of science news and goings on!!

This week was busier than usual and CauseScience didn’t get to post all of the awesome science-y things we wanted to. Here is a roundup of cool science news and happenings to check out!

The NIH has awarded $31 million to enhance diversity amongst biomedical researchers!

President Obama’s moratorium on controversial research about certain viruses is stopping some scientists research in its tracks.

A video in the world’s largest vacuum chamber confirms that a feather and bowling ball will fall at the same rate.

New study finds that the urban legend that NYC has 1 rat per person is wrong. It’s actually more like 1 rat for every 4 people.

Citizen science contributed to a groundbreaking air quality study published this week!

While GMO labeling measures in Colorado and Oregon failed at the polls, apparently Bill Nye is still on the fence about GMO‘s.

Body Horrors blog posted a great piece on the history of miners and their unknown nemesis… the hookworm.

Can you tell when New Yorkers are slacking off based on twitter?? (gif: Carl Engelking)?


ScienceCareers posted an terrific article about Postdocs ‘speaking up’ for themselves featuring findings from the ‘Future of Research Symposium

Young student scientists are doing their part to help fight Ebola!‘s Absurd Creature of the Week is a beautiful sea slug with a secret weapon!

NPR fills us in on what the election results will mean for Environmental Policy.

Earth Science Week! Participate in NASA’s Citizen Science Project #SkyScience


This week, Oct 12-18, is Earth Science Week! In honor of Earth Science Week, NASA has set up a terrific Citizen Scientist project, #SkyScience.

Clouds are an important part of Earth’s atmosphere, and NASA scientists are studying how they affect our weather and climate. Clouds cover about half of the planet at any one time, ranging from high, wispy cirrus to dark, rumbling thunderheads. By participating in #SkyScience you will help NASA learn more about the types of clouds where you live, work and play, and help all of us celebrate the beauty of Earth’s atmosphere, and the science behind it.

What is Sky Science?

#SkyScience highlights two of NASA’s programs studying Earth’s atmosphere.  S’COOL, Students’ Cloud Observations Online, focuses on cloud observations as “ground truth” measurements to assist in the validation of the CERES instrument on NASA satellites passing overhead. Sky Art is an online community where the public can share in the beauty of nature and the science behind it by submitting sky photos related to NASA Earth science mission research areas.

Go to the NASA SkyScience webpage, and participate by following 4 easy steps.

[tweet] [tweet]

Geraint Jones explains how citizen scientists are exploring space! @ConversationUK

Space: the financial frontier – how citizen scientists took control of a spaceship

By Geraint Jones, University College London

For decades, space exploration remained a domain within reach of only government agencies, who could command huge pools of expertise and public funds. Now the means by which our space endeavours are funded have become more diverse, and more and more private space initiatives are appearing.

NASA recently awarded contracts to two private companies, SpaceX and Boeing, to build the spacecraft that will ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station. Commercial space tourism, however high-end a proposition it is now, is set to expand. And similar developments are occurring in the field of unmanned spaceflight: Planetary Resources, Inc has the ambitious aim of mining asteroids for minerals.

The age of commercial, private, space adventurism is here.

The latest and perhaps most inspiring example is the crowd-funded project to resurrect a decades-old NASA spacecraft purely for the engineering challenge and science potential. The International Sun-Earth Explorer 3 unmanned probe (ISEE-3) was launched by NASA in 1978 to study the flow of particles from the Sun that buffet the Earth’s magnetic field, known as the solar wind. Dispatched to a location between the Sun and Earth where the gravitational pull of our planet and the Sun cancel each other, the spacecraft spent years carrying out its task.

ISEE-3, the little spaceship that could

In the early 1980s, with Halley’s Comet rapidly approaching, NASA was conspicuous by its absence among the international flotilla of spacecraft being assembled to investigate this most famous of comets up close.

Bob Farquhar and the team running ISEE-3 hatched an audacious plan, making the most of ISEE-3’s remaining fuel to perform some complex manoeuvring through a series of changes in orbit and the slingshot effect of the moon, sending it far from Earth. On its new course, ISEE-3 would encounter the smaller Comet 21P/Giacobini-Zinner, beating the international armada heading for Halley by several months. As the temporarily renamed International Cometary Explorer (ICE), it conducted the first-ever comet encounter in September 1985, and was then left to drift in an orbit that would bring it back towards Earth in 2014.

ISEE-3 ploughed a twisting furrow through space to complete its missions.

Although NASA had occasionally checked on the spacecraft’s health (most recently in 2008), it was clear that the agency did not place a high priority on resurrecting it. Many enthusiasts and scientists – including Farquhar himself, now long retired – were concerned that this pioneering probe was going to be abandoned, when it could in principle be returned to its spot between the Sun and Earth to perform further solar wind observations or, if enough fuel remained, to even encounter a second comet in 2017 or 2018.

Interplanetary boarding

In the 29 years since ISEE-3’s first comet encounter, there have been terrific advances in access to large dishes and radio communications hardware. So it was not hard even for groups of amateur enthusiasts to try and contact ISEE-3. Radio signals from the spacecraft were detected by a German group in March 2014, indicating that it was still operational after 36 years in space.

A small group of enthusiasts, who had previously reprocessed, in better quality, the images sent back from the 1960s Lunar Orbiter programme, through a privately-funded project, were keen to try and bring ISEE-3 back under control. They set up a crowd-funding site to raise the necessary funds; donations rolled in, eventually reaching almost US$160,000, together with offers of technical assistance and long-lost documentation for the probe.

Using the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, commands were sent to the probe, and on May 29 those attempts bore fruit – the ISEE-3 Reboot Project became the first non-governmental organisation to command a spacecraft in interplanetary space.

In early July, ISEE-3’s thrusters were commanded back to life, bringing the spacecraft’s rate of spin under control. A few days later, further thruster commands didn’t go as well – although carrying enough fuel, the nitrogen gas required to provide pressure to the thruster system had apparently leaked away. The Reboot Project team had to reluctantly conclude that the spacecraft was showing its age and that returning it to orbit would be impossible.

Re-using spaceships for fun and profit

Despite problems controlling the spacecraft’s path, power levels were good, with the solar panels performing well. Data returned from the craft’s scientific instruments were excellent, revealing features in the solar wind and the signatures of solar flares.

On August 10, ISEE-3 sailed past the moon. Its instrument data complemented observations made by two other spacecraft in lunar orbit that had themselves been repurposed from the NASA THEMIS mission. The readings taken by ISEE-3 are posted online as open data for anyone to study. The last was heard from ISEE-3 on September 16; since then, there has been silence. It’s likely that ISEE-3 has switched to safe mode, turning off its transmitters and instruments, and it’s unclear whether the probe can be woken before it again leaves the Earth’s vicinity for the cold depths of space.

Although ultimately short-lived, the ISEE-3 project demonstrated the enthusiasm and resources available for private space endeavours. What other projects might follow? The sky is the limit – perhaps even involving the three lunar rovers sitting on the moon since the early 1970s. Only new batteries are needed to bring them back to life, so perhaps well-funded space tourists will, in a few decades, be able to not just fly to the moon but drive on it when they get there.

The Conversation

Geraint Jones does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Hilarious Buzzfeed Video: Signs that #science isn’t for you… or is it?

As an aside, I have to say that mistakes and flubs like these happen all the time while doing science, albeit on a different scale (i.e. messed up PCR or western blot, forgotten reagent, or even not using PPE*). So perhaps this video should be titled, anyone doing science needs to be careful.

*PPE= personal protective equipment (safety goggles, lab coats, etc)

Ladan Cockshut schools us on citizen #science and gaming @TheConversationUK

Addictive online games make citizen science a hit

By Ladan Cockshut, Durham University

A few days ago, I was an astrophysicist and contributed to a research project by organising sunspot images in order of complexity. After I’d had enough of that, I became a biochemist and worked late into the night on a project creating synthetic RNA.

Actually, I am not a scientist. Before yesterday I hadn’t really studied sunspots and I am still not entirely sure what RNA does. And yet, I was welcomed by the research team. It turns out they didn’t care about my lack of scientific knowledge. What they needed were my visual and gaming skills.

Both these projects, Sunspotter and EteRNA, exemplify the recent upswing in citizen science projects. Sunspotter’s aim is to track sun spots, which can inform us about solar storms that have the capacity to be quite destructive. EteRNA’s aim is to learn more about manipulating RNA – one of the basic molecules of life – which can then help in nanoengineering new types of proteins that can create useful chemicals or perform desired actions inside the body.

Citizen science has been widely applauded by those involved in and watching its progress. Many view them as providing reliable data and solving problems effectively. But even though there are more citizen science projects than ever before, this is not a new concept. There has been a long tradition of the public contributing to research – the Audubon Society’s “Christmas Bird Count” first launched in 1900 – though they have been typically limited to collecting and submitting data.

Nowadays citizen science also engages volunteers in human-based computing. While advances in computing have enhanced research, computers can only do so much. In an interview, Rhiju Das, a biochemist at Stanford University and co-creator of EteRNA, explained that while computing programs try to decipher and build new strands of RNA, none can match the human ability to pick up on “subtle, emerging patterns” to effectively predict new ones.

Leaving all human-based computing in the hands of highly trained scientists or technicians alone, however, could cripple progress. In a bid to address this, some scientists are cross-breeding citizen science with digital games to facilitate human-based computing in an entertaining way. And it seems to be working.

Gamifying citizen science

Scientists such as Das find gamification an effective method of human-based computing. He claims the addictive, social and goals-based elements of a game keep enthusiasts coming back and contributing. And having this large group engaged with human-based computing is critical to generating enough data to spring the research forward.

I can certainly see those elements while exploring EteRNA. It is an online game portal with simple game features. Its elements remind me of other successful, conventional online games that I study, such as the World of Warcraft. It has achievements and rankings. The goals are clear. And there is a forum and chat function.

The players have come up with guides and tutorials. When I solve a puzzle, my screen rewards me with a shimmering display of lights and bubbles. While a lot of people have tried the game – more than 60,000 accounts have been created – far fewer appear to have spent more than a few tries at the puzzles. It is not impossible, but there is a learning curve.

So rather than just visually comparing images, like in the Sunspotter project, a citizen science game is designed to generate results or content in a way that is entertaining and relies on the core elements of a game itself. That is to say, while the citizen science outcome is clearly stated – “you will help us fold proteins” – gamifying the activity transforms this outcome into – “you will compete against each other to see who is the fastest or best at folding proteins”. And if you do well there are rewards: rankings, access to the scientists and the chance to make a real contribution to scientific research. This is exactly what massive multi-player online games, or MMOGA, depend on for long-term success.

Advantages of addiction

Eli Fisker has been playing EteRNA since 2011 and is currently ranked 5th amongst EteRNA gamers. What brought Eli to EteRNA was his love of puzzle games, such as Tetris or Candy Crush, and an interest in science. He is quick to point out that while he is not a scientist – he is a librarian, actually – being a citizen scientist lets him add meaning to his love of science.

“There a lot of regular people interested in science,” he told me. “So it is great that this love for science can be used for good. We get a shot at helping solve scientific problems.”

A citizen-science game has an added benefit: by using a game format for human-based computing activity, a gamer like Eli can feel like he has helped speed up scientific research. A feeling he claims is more “addictive than Candy Crush”, which is a highly addictive and successful smartphone game.

Citizen science is not without its controversies, however. Some question the ethics of the long hours put in by unpaid volunteers. The fact also remains that little research has been published so far around the wider impact of these games, particularly when exploring issues like failure, research impact or the player experience.

A lack of participation can also affect the effectiveness of these games. Adrien Trueille, EteRNA’s other co-creator and computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University, noted that the game’s research aim may be unachievable without enough volunteers, particularly if it is dependent on human-generated design and analysis.

And yet, the rise of these types of games suggests a fascination with the idea of citizen science games. It is unclear if that is due to everything being gamified these days or because scientists are seeing it as a great way to attract wider participation and impact. Regardless, those who play these games seem happy to keep working on the problems their scientific colleagues put forward.

“My feeling about citizen science is empowerment,” Eli said. “We play, fail and succeed. I can do something concrete about a specific problem.”


Ladan Cockshut does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.