Goodbye Moon

Ever wonder what the sky would look like if the moon was replaced by the other planets in our solar system? Well, wonder no more. Below are renderings of what the night sky would look like (barring any gravitational devastation from the sheer mass of the planets). I’ve put the diameter of the planet in parenthesis so you can see just how big it is.

Picture credit to Ron Miller.

The Moon (2,160 miles)

1

Mercury (3,032 miles)

2

Venus (7,521 miles)

3

Mars (4,212 miles)

4

Jupiter (86,881 miles)

5

Saturn (72,367 miles)

6

Uranus (31,518 miles)

7

Neptune (30,599 miles)

8

And as an added bonus….

Pluto (1,466 miles)

9

My own addition: Earth in the moon’s place seen from Earth (7,918 miles)

10

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Give Those Women Some Space

When I grew up I wanted to be an astronaut. I loved outer space (specifically that of the Star Trek variety) and I thought it would be fun to float around in space and fiddle with the scientific instruments, maybe take a stroll on the moon.

Then I learned (slightly erroneously) that most astronauts are in the military. (A person can gain flying experience in the military, which is handy, but civilian astronauts are common, too.) I didn’t want to join the military. Even though I was a kid not too long ago (in the 90’s) the military wasn’t really a place for women, or at least wimpy petite women like me. I mainly gained life experience through movies/TV and there just weren’t women soldiers… or if they were they were buff and bald and manly (I’m looking at you Demi Moore).

So I gave up my dream of being an astronaut. And maybe that was better. The Guardian just reported that the number of women in space and just surpassed the number of dogs in space. But times are changing. Many women are looking into careers in space. Astronaut Cady Coleman noted that some people have the misconception that women don’t belong in space, they can’t do the jobs or won’t be as good as men. (Of course, since “normal people don’t care about science” they had to equate women in space to a popular movie. So skip to the end if you want to hear her quote.) But she’s been working hard to show people that women are just as capable. Mae Jemison, the first African American woman in space, also offers hope to young women wanting to go into space: “Never let yourself be limited by other people’s limited imagination.”

The End [of the big research group] Is Nigh

Nobel laureate Robert Grubbs, of the Grubbs’ catalyst fame, answered some interesting questions in an interview recently in Nature. He was asked “Is academic science research becoming dependent on industry funding?” A question I’ve been interested in since I started graduate school. From reading through the literature and talking to people about their work, the obvious trend of application-based research leaps out. Being in academia and studying ‘basic science,’ I understand how hard it is to get funding (in four years, I’ve only been on RA a single summer). Grubbs says that,

industry is having similar financial problems to academia and has also cut back on its funding of basic research… Now, most of the commercialization is done by small companies who are bridging the gap between the laboratory and industry.

For someone interested in how things work and not necessarily their utility, this is sad to hear. At the same time, it is understandable. I attended a talk by the famous chemist George M. Whitesides this weekend at the NASW conference and he supported the trend of application-based research. But he took a slightly different aspect. Instead of finding a problem and applying known chemistry (or physics or biology), researchers should find a problem that can’t be solved with what we know. Then, after much hard work and new discoveries, we’ll have both a solution to the problem and a deeper understanding of the universe. That is an opinion both the pure and applied researchers can get behind.

In the interview, Grubbs goes on to talk about how funding is increasingly difficult to find, saying it’s hard to even get into a career in the sciences. “We will probably have to reduce some of that [graduate] support and make tenure decisions earlier. The day of the really big research group is over.” In a not-so-promising ending to the (published) interview he says, “I must admit that I am sort of glad I’m old!”

David’s Tree of Lice

Note: I am at the National Science Writer’s Association meeting in Gainesville, FL! Today was the New Horizon’s sessions featuring researchers in different scientific fields. This post is about one of those talks.

David Reed paces the stage, microphone clipped to his tie, flipping through slide after wordless slide, like he’s giving a TED talk. With great enthusiasm, he tells us about human evolution and how much we’ve learned about our ancestral lines in the past few decades.

He showed a lot of pictures like this:

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And this:

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Then he starts talking about pubic lice. Apparently, the evolution of lice tells a partial story of the evolution of man. Lice cospeciate with us, meaning that we are so closely linked they evolve along side us. Their lineage line, showing when a a line splits into two genetically distinct species, mirrors ours. Lice are our evolutionary pals.

Humans have two species of lice: Pediculus Humanus, which covers head and clothing, and Pthirus Pubis, which covers, you guessed it, the pubis—crabs. Closely related in the evolutionary trees is Pthirus Gorillae, pubic lice for gorillas. In fact, Reed has shown that human and gorilla pubic lice come from the same lineage. He noted science writers headlined their stories with “Humans Got Pubic Lice From Gorillas” even though this exchanged happened about 3 million years ago.

To test the louse lineage, he had to run the genome, which meant getting samples.

“Getting pubic lice is pretty easy,” he said. The crowd giggled at this seemingly Freudian slip. “But getting pubic lice off a gorilla is pretty hard.” The crowd roared.

Shared crabs isn’t the only thing he’s learned from our lice friends. Looking at where a species splits can give us valuable evolutionary timeline information. For example, clothing lice and head lice shared a common ancestor. The split gives us an estimate on when lice traveled from our bodies to the new furry things wrapped around our shoulders—our very first clothes. The split happened between 80 to 170 thousand years ago, so Reed estimates that sometime in there humans started wearing clothing (his work estimates around 100k). This time line also corresponds to when humans were moving north to cooler climates and our relatively non-hairy skin just wasn’t cutting it.

Humans evolve pretty slowly, so it’s hard to determine our “recent” history. What Reed is calling recent is actually about 15 thousand years ago, when humans first crossed the ice bridge over to the Americas. By “studying the passengers that took that road trip with us” we can discover something about ourselves.