Tune in Tuesday, January 20 at 2:00 pm MT to watch "Blood" on Idaho Public Television or here on the web.

Joan's Blog

December 15, 2014:

A printout from the Wiggles seismograph at Boise State University

What do the residents of Lakeview, Oregon; Meeker, Oklahoma; and Cordova, Alaska have in common? They all experienced an earthquake today. None of the quakes registered more than a 3.0, so folks probably didn't feel them. When it comes to earthquakes, the residents of all three towns have something in common with you. All of you can watch our new broadcast show about Earthquakes. It airs tomorrow, Tuesday, December 16th at 2:00 p.m. MT on Idaho Public Television or you can watch it here on the Science Trek Website.

We have a special feature in our Earthquake show. We followed the Boise State University Geophysics club as members studied the "earthquakes" caused by fans attending a BSU football game. Scientists use a device called a seismograph to measure the intensity of earthquakes. There are some great online seismographs you can follow; here are links to some that measure real-time earthquakes:

The USGU Earthquake hazard program: This site shows you all the 2.5+ earthquakes detected around the world in the last 24 hours as well as significant earthquakes for the past 30 days. The site has lots of great real-time and historical earthquake information.

Boise State University Department of Geosciences seismograph — Wiggles: This link shows you the most recent 24-hour recording from the seismograph located in the lobby of the Geosciences building. They have dubbed their seismograph, "Wiggles."

University of Utah — Earthquake Information Center: This link takes you to the Station Location Map for the Yellowstone Region. Here you can see the locations of earthquakes in and around Yellowstone National Park.

Of course, there is a lot more information about earthquakes at the Earthquake section of the Science Trek website. Be sure to check it out.

One other thing to note: this Sunday, December 21st is the shortest day of the year (for us folks in the Northern Hemisphere.) The Winter Solstice happens when the North Pole is tilted the furthest away from the sun. This year, the Winter Solstice officially happens December 21st at 4:03 p.m. MT. In Boise, we will have only 8 hours and 56 minutes of daylight on December 20th and only 8 hours, 56 minutes and 57 seconds on the 21st. For us, the 20th is a slightly shorter day because our latitude, that is, where we are on the Earth. While we in the Northern Hemisphere are experiencing the Winter Solstice, our friends in the Southern Hemisphere will have their longest day of the year, their Summer Solstice. So folks in the south, enjoy that sunshine. Our days will soon start getting longer and your days will start getting shorter.

You can find out how much daylight you will have on December 21st where you live on the Time and Date website.

Check out the Earthquakes show. Have a great Solstice and a great week.

December 10, 2014:

A United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket with NASA's Orion spacecraft mounted atop is seen after the Mobile Service Tower was finished rolling back early on Thursday, Dec. 4, at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Space Launch Complex 37 in Florida. [Image Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls]

Last week, we told you that NASA's Orion spaceship was going to be fired into space. Well, it survived its test and scientists are thrilled. This flight was designed to see if the craft's heat shield and parachutes would work properly. The heat shield is the largest of its kind ever built and needed to withstand temperatures up to 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The parachutes needed to deploy at just the right time to slow the capsule's landing in the Pacific Ocean. NASA scientists also used about 1,200 different sensors onboard Orion to make sure the computers and all the other systems would work well in space. They particularly wanted to see how well Orion would survive the high levels of radiation in space. Everything went really well and now the researchers will use the test flight data to prepare for a manned flight to someplace like Mars. You can read more about Orion at NASA's website.

Back here on earth — just when you thought it was safe to go outside, Chinese researchers have found 30 new spider species. Scientists have spent years of their lives studying the creatures found in the Xishuangbanna tropical rain forest. This rain forest is located in the southern part of Yunnan Province and has the Lancang (Mekong) river flowing through it. Within it is the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden, which is famous for its more than 10,000 species of tropical and subtropical plants. The scientists collected about 700 spider species and found a whole bunch of new ones. The scientists think there may be many more new types of spiders in this area, so more news to come. Eek! You can read about this discovery in this release from EurekAlert.

Have a good week!

December 1, 2014:

Joan Cartan-Hanse outside the Orion spacecraft at the Johnson Space Center, Houston. [Credit: Joan Cartan-Hansen]

NASA's newest spacecraft — the Orion — gets a big test this week. Orion is the spacecraft designed to take humans deeper into space, possibly to Mars. For its maiden flight on Thursday, the Orion capsule will be launched into a two-orbit, four-hour flight to test the onboard systems and check for the safety of things like the heat shield. There won't be any people on board, but there will be some other items going into space.

Scientists are sending up a radiation experiment designed by students who won the Exploration Design Challenge. The students are looking at ways of protecting future astronauts from the effects of radiation. The scientists are also sending up a few things just for fun: a prehistoric fossil from a T-Rex; an oxygen hose from an Apollo spacesuit; and a microchip with the names of more than a million people. They are sending up these artifacts as a nod to the history of our planet and with the hope of inspiring people's interest in exploring space. If you want to see inside the Orion capsule, check out our tour of the Space Vehicle Mock Up Facility from our Astronaut show. Toward the end of the video, we get a glimpse inside this spacecraft. And you can read more about the Orion mission at the NASA website.

Sit! Stay! Does your dog understand what you are saying? Perhaps. Scientists think dogs' brains process human speech much the same way that humans' brains process speech. That is, dogs may not understand the exact words but may be able to understand the tone and emphasis. It's like if you've ever heard your Mom yell something and not understood exactly what she said, but you could tell she was mad about something. That's understanding what someone says by "reading" the tone, in this case, "Mom is mad," and the emphasis, "react now!" That's how scientists think dogs understand human speech. That means your dog really is responding to what you are saying, or rather how you are saying it. Read more about this research in this article from The Guardian.

We are editing our next show, "Earthquakes," and taking questions for our upcoming "Blood" and "Robotics" programs. If you have a question for us, send it in!

Have a great week!

November 25, 2014:

Turkey on a platter [Credit: Gerry/tuchodi | https://www.flickr.com/people/tuchodi/]

Happy Turkey Week! I hope you are going to have a wonderful Thanksgiving with your family and friends. When you are getting together to eat all that wonderful food, just make sure you avoid trans fats. They slow down your brain.

Artificial trans fats are made in an industrial process that adds hydrogen to liquid vegetable oils to make them more solid. It is found in foods like frozen pizza, microwave popcorn, non-dairy creamers and canned frosting. We have known for a while that they are bad for your heart; now scientists think trans fats are bad for your brain too.

Researcher Beatrice Golomb presented a paper to the American Heart Association which showed that older and younger men who ate the most trans fat in their diet did worse on a memory task than men of the same age who didn't eat trans fats. In this study, the people who ate the most trans fats recalled 10% fewer words in a memory test. So remember this — look for terms like "partially hydrogenated oils" on your food packaging and avoid them.

Trans fats infographic [Credit: Credit: Yingling/MCT]

Golomb's study did have one other interesting fact. She noted that chocolate boosts the "biogenesis of mitochondria" in cells, "thus benefitting delivery of oxygen and other energy substrates." So where trans fats are bad for your brain, chocolate is good. Add that to your list when you give thanks this week. Read more about this study in this article from the Maine News.

If you haven't seen it yet, check out our newest broadcast show, "Astronauts." We had a great time touring the Johnson Space center and appreciate all the folks who helped us. Be sure to watch our tour of the Space Vehicle Mock Up Facility.

Finally, just because it is Thanksgiving, I leave you with four fun facts about turkeys (With thanks to this article from LiveScience).

  • Wild turkeys can fly up to 55 miles per hour on short flights. Domestic turkeys (the ones we eat) cannot fly because they are too heavy.
  • You can tell a turkey's gender by its poop. The feces of male turkey are J-shaped, straighter and longer than female turkeys' poop. Hens' poop looks more like a spiral.
  • When it comes time to breed, the heads of male turkeys can turn the colors of red, white and blue. Their bodies are green, bronze and gold, so altogether they are quite colorful when they are in love.
  • And lastly, only male turkeys gobble. Female turkeys (hens) make a sound more like a chirp and a cluck.

Happy Thanksgiving and have a great week!

November 10, 2014:

Two girls reading a book at a table in the library [Credit: Ziko van Dijk, Wikimedia Commons]

Are you an e-reader or do you pick up an actual book? It turns out that not all reading media are equal. A study out of Norway's Stavanger University shows readers using a Kindle were "significantly" worse than were paperback readers at remembering when events happened in a mystery story.

In this study, 50 readers were given the same short story. Half read it on a Kindle. The other half read it from a paperback book. All of the readers were then tested on the details of the story. Both Kindle and paperback readers did about the same remembering objects and characters in the story, but Kindle readers did a lot worse remembering the timing of events. Researchers hypothesized that the difference is because the brain "reads" by making a mental picture of the text based where the word is on the page and where the page is in the book. Lead researcher Anne Mangen suggests that when you read a physical book, you have a tactile sense of progress. That helps your brain get things in order. E-devices really only have one page, and it's only the content that changes each time a page (screen) is swiped. That limits the sensory information an e-device reader gets and so reduces his or her long-term memory of the text.

Mangen's research is supported by another study from Norway. 72 Norwegian 10th graders were given text to read either in print or as a PDF on a computer screen. They were all tested on the material. The students who read the information on paper scored significantly better than did the students who read on a screen. You can read more about both studies in this article from The Guardian newspaper.

These were both small studies, but the results suggest there should be more research. What's not in doubt are the benefits we all get from reading. You get more from reading than just good information or fun entertainment. Studies show six minutes of reading reduces stress by 68%. Reading keeps your brain functioning better as you age. Reading before bedtime might even help you sleep better. So go read, and if you really need to understand and remember what you are reading, consider reading an actual book.

What is it like to be an astronaut? Find out on our upcoming new show next week! Check out "Astronauts" on Tuesday, November 18th at 2:00/1:00 p.m. MT/PT on Idaho Public Television or here on the Science Trek website.

Have a great week!

November 3, 2014:

Rabbit, bird, cat, woman all scratching an itch [Credits: Tristan Bowersox, Rodney Campbell, Search Engine People Blog, M.L. Duong]

Are you itchy? Don't scratch. That's what your Mom would say, and now science says she's right. New research published in the journal Neuron says that scratching does not really end the itch.

When your scratch your skin, nerves in your skin send a pain signal to the brain. The brain sends out a chemical called serotonin to control the pain of the scratch. Researchers found that as serotonin moves from the brain to the spinal cord it moves from the pain-sensing neurons to nerve cells that influence "itch intensity." So scratching just makes your itch itchier.

Lead researcher Zhou-Feng Chen did tests in mice and found that mice that did not have serotonin in their system didn't scratch as much as mice that did have serotonin. So, scratching might distract you from your itch, but it won't stop it and may make it worse. Find out more about why scratching makes you itchier in this article from New York Magazine.

The general election is this Tuesday, and scientists can probably guess for whom your parents, older siblings and friends will vote just by seeing how their brains react to disgusting pictures. Yes, disgusting pictures. A team of scientists from Virginia Tech asked 83 volunteers to take a test to see if they considered themselves liberal or conservative. Then they had the volunteers look at 80 different images while having their brains scanned. When showed a disgusting image, the brains of the volunteers who said they were conservative reacted differently than the brains of those who said they were liberal.

The researchers think that people's political views are not purely cognitive, that is, based on learning and discussing the issues. They think that emotion plays a bigger role and that you may have inherited your political views in the same way you inherited how tall you will grow. Tell your voting family and friends to think about that on Election Day. Read more about the study in this article from the Los Angeles Times.

Have a great week!

October 27, 2014:

Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko [Credit: NASA]
Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko [Credit: NASA]

Happy Halloween week! In honor of this holiday, I picked a couple of weird science stories for your reading enjoyment.

First, what does a comet smell like? How about this: a combination of rotten eggs, bitter almond and cat urine. Scientists working at the European Space Agency studied the smell of the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko using spectrometers on the space probe Rosetta. The bad smells are good news. By detecting the molecules that make up these smells, the scientists hope to learn more about the earliest days of the universe. Scientists also hope that they will be able to detect even more as the comet gets closer to the sun, warms up and releases more scents. Right now, the molecules that make up the smell are in very low concentrations. You wouldn't be able to smell it, but according to the head of the project, your dog probably could — a good reason to keep your dog off a comet! Read more about this smelly story in this article from New Scientist.

And second, paleontologists have discovered a very weird looking dinosaur. The Deinocheirus was the size of a T-Rex and had arms eight feet long. It was a beaked, humpbacked, ostrich-like dinosaur that lived 70 million years ago, ate small animals, fish and plants. It had a bony "sail" on its back, and its bill was toothless. It was 36 feet long and weighed about 14,000 pounds. It also had hoof-like claws. Scientists think the odd feet kept it from sinking into muddy ground when it looked for food. Scientists classify it as a theropod — a group of dinosaurs that includes the T-Rex and the ancestors of modern birds.

Deinocheirus mirificus - Restoration based on specimens described in 2014 [Credit: Michael B. H.]
Deinocheirus mirificus — Restoration based on specimens described in 2014
[Credit: Michael B. H.]

Paleontologists had known about parts of this weird looking dinosaur for years but didn't know exactly what it looked like until recently. A team of researchers found fossils in Mongolia and were able to piece the odd-looking dinosaur together. The dinosaur's full name is Deinocheirus mirificus, which means "unusual horrible hand" in a combination of Latin and Greek. Check out more about this discovery in this article from the Los Angeles Times.

I close this post with a link to the American Chemical Society's most recent video explaining why things taste sweet. Enjoy it and your Halloween tricks and treats!

October 20, 2014:

We have a new broadcast show airing Tuesday, October 21st! Check out "States of Matter" program at 2:00/1:00 p.m. MT/PT on Idaho Public Television or here on the Science Trek website.

Skydiver adjacent to solar eclipse; photo taken in Nampa, Idaho, May 20, 2012 | Credit : Kevin Rank

If you have good weather on Thursday, October 23rd, check out the partial solar eclipse. Most of North America (except the northeast) will be able to see it. A solar eclipse happens when the moon gets in between the Earth and the sun. If you are in Boise, the eclipse starts about 2:52 p.m. MT. The maximum happens at 4:15 p.m. MT and it ends at 5:31 p.m. MT. We here in the Pacific Northwest can expect more than half of the sun to be covered by the passing moon. WARNING: Do not look at a solar eclipse directly. You can damage your eyes if you look directly at the sun. Space.com has tips for viewing a solar eclipse safely.

If stargazing is not your thing, how about really large spiders? Scientist Piotr Naskrecki was walking though a rainforest in Guyana when he found a South American Goliath Birdeater. This spider was puppy-sized and is considered the world's largest. Its legs can reach up to one foot long and it weighs more than six ounces. Its feet have hard tips and claws and make a clicking sound like horse's hooves hitting the ground. To defend itself, this spider sends out a cloud of hair bits with microscopic barbs on them. If the hairs get into the eyes or nose, it can be extremely painful, with the pain lasting for days. It also has a pair of two-inch-long fangs and is venomous, though not deadly to people. The South American Goliath Birdeater can eat small birds or bird eggs, but its main dinner is earthworms. Read more about this giant spider in this LiveScience article.

Finally, the American Chemical Society has a fun video on the chemistry of pizza. If you are in a States of Matter mood, this is a fun watch. Check it out.

Have a great week and be sure to watch the new show!

October 13, 2014:

Artist's rendition of Comet Siding Spring passing the planet Mars. Credit: NASA | http://mars.nasa.gov/multimedia/images/?ImageID=5931

It is a once-in-a-million year opportunity. On October 19th, NASA scientists will be studying Comet Siding Spring as it zooms past Mars. This comet will be coming within about 87,000 miles of the Red Planet. That's about one-third the distance between Earth and the moon. NASA is planning to use all of its Mars orbiters and rovers to check out Comet Siding Spring, giving researchers a truly unique opportunity.

The comet is making its first trip into our inner solar system. It came from the Oort Cloud, which is about 50,000 astronomical units from the sun. Because this comet has never been close to our sun before, it hasn't been "heat-treated." That means the comet is unchanged since it was first created 4.6 billion years ago. Scientists hope that by studying it, they can learn more about the conditions that existed at the birth of the solar system.

Scientists have some information on Siding Spring already. They think its core is between one half to five miles in diameter and its tail about 300,000 miles long. You can read more about this comet in this article from Space.com.

Our newest broadcast show airs next Tuesday. We'll be answering your questions about States of Matter. Be sure to watch it on October 21st at 2:00/1:00 p.m. MT/PT on Idaho Public Television or here on the Science Trek website.

Joan in the Control Room of NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX.

We are also just back from our trip to the Johnson Space Center. We traveled there to get answers to your questions about what it is like to be an astronaut. That show will air November 18th. Here's a behind-the-scenes look at our trip. I'm in the Apollo Mission Control Center.

Have a great week!

October 6, 2014:

Lunar eclipse at full occlusion. Credit: Kevin Rank | https://www.flickr.com/photos/ryfter/5279833516

Sky watchers have a rare opportunity early Wednesday morning. For folks in the western United States and across the Pacific, you will be able to see a total eclipse of the moon. A lunar eclipse happens when the Earth gets between the sun and the moon. The Earth's shadow blocks the sun's light. There are three kinds of eclipses — total, partial and penumbral. When the moon is in a full eclipse, it appears red. This is how it got the name 'blood moon.'

In Boise where I live, the total eclipse begins at 4:27 a.m. At 4:55 a.m., the moon will be closest to the center of the Earth's shadow, and at about 5:22 a.m. the eclipse will end. The sun rises at 7:51 a.m., so we won't have a chance to see the rare sight of the sun rising and an eclipsed moon in the sky at the same time. That's called a "selenelion." You wouldn't think this would be possible because during a lunar eclipse the sun and moon are 180 degrees apart. But because of the Earth's atmosphere, the light of the sun and the moon are lifted above the Earth's horizon for a few minutes. The is called "atmospheric refraction." It allows you to see both the rising sun and the setting, eclipsing moon for a few minutes. Here is a link to timeanddate.com to find out when the eclipse happens in your area and what you might have a chance to see. NOTE: the link displays the eclipse time for Boise; if you live somewhere else, just type in your own city's name in the "Eclipse Calculator" box. If you want to learn more about refraction, check out the "How Light Behaves" section of Science Trek's Light and Color Facts page.

Here's a good reason to get up and run around for an hour: it will help you think better. Researchers from the University of Illinois studied two sets of kids, aged 7-9. All were tested for their fitness levels and their cognitive abilities. Half were enrolled in an afterschool program and the other half went home. The afterschool kids started their time with a quick fitness task like jumping jacks. Then they did things like learn to play soccer or eat healthy foods. Following that, they put on heart rate monitors and played physical games.

At the end of nine months, the physical fitness rates of the afterschool kids improved by 6%. The at-home group improved just 1%. The afterschool kids showed a 10% increase in cognitive skills while the at-home group saw just a 5% increase. These results suggest that getting a couple of hours of exercise after school improved the kids' ability to think, stay focused and do better in school.

So after school, get moving. Join a sports team. It may make you a better student. You can read more about the study in this article from the L.A. Times.

Have a great week!

September 29, 2014:

Photo of Earth from space. Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Image by Reto Stockli (land surface, shallow water, clouds). Enhancements by Robert Simmon (ocean color, compositing, 3D globes, animation). | http://visibleearth.nasa.gov/view.php?id=57723

Where did the water on Earth come from? That's a question that has puzzled scientists for years. Now some think they know. Astronomers from the University of Michigan reported in the journal Science that between 30 and 50 percent of the Earth's water existed before the birth of the sun.

The scientists ran computer models looking at two kinds of water, "heavy" water, which contains a substance called deuterium, and regular water. It turns out that interstellar water has a high ratio of deuterium because of the cold conditions in space. After some testing, scientists learned that the solar system could not have formed without at least some water already there.

Why is this important? Well, scientists think that if water existed before the sun, then interstellar ice may be found in all young planetary systems. That might be important as astronomers look for life in other parts of the galaxy. You can read more about this discovery in this article from CNET.

There was news of another scientific study that isn't on such a grand scale. A Japanese team has learned why banana peels are slippery when you step on them. Kiyoshi Malbuchi and his colleagues measured the friction in the banana skin. They found polysaccharide follicular gels in banana skins. That gives them their slippery properties. That's why you can slip on a banana peel and not an apple peel.

The study may seem a little silly, but it turns out that the polysaccharide follicular gels are also found in the membranes where our bones meet. Understanding more about the health of our joints could improve our health overall. The Japanese scientists received one of this year's Ig Nobel prizes for their work. The Ig Nobel prize honor achievements that first make people laugh, and then makes them think. You can read more about the Japanese study and the other Ig Nobel winners in this report from the BBC.

Have a great week!

September 22, 2014:

Welcome Fall! The autumnal equinox happens at 8:29 p.m. MDT on Monday. During the spring and autumn equinox, the sun is exactly over the equator at noon and the day and night are about the same length. Now, we in the northern hemisphere can expect the days to get shorter and the nights longer until we hit the winter solstice on December 21st.

Pieces of the lunch Puzzle | Credit: Melissa (https://www.flickr.com/photos/buzzymelibee/)

What did you have for lunch today? If your parents went to college, you probably ate a healthier meal. A study from the University of British Columbia found that children of college-educated parents eat more vegetables and drink less sugar. Good nutrition is important because it leads to good health. So why is this happening? Researchers aren't quite sure. It could be healthy foods are more expensive or perhaps some parents aren't as educated as they could be about the importance of good nutrition. But regardless of the parents' educational level, all kids were not drinking enough low-fat milk or eating enough whole grains and fruits and vegetables while they are at or around school.

Researchers surveyed more than 1,000 students in grades 5-8. They asked the students to list what they ate and also focused on what they ate at school or on their way to and from school. Less than half of the kids ate fruits or veggies while at or around school. 31% said they drank sugary drinks like soda pop. 15% said they went hungry. The scientists hope this study will encourage school official to do more about teaching good nutrition and providing students with healthy food alternatives. You can read more about the report in this news release from Eurekalert.org.

If you haven't seen it yet, check out our Bats show.

Have a great week!

September 15, 2014:

Bat hanging from ceiling

Bats! Yes, that's the topic of our newest broadcast show which airs Tuesday, September 16th at 2:00/1:00 p.m. MT/PT. Be sure to watch it on Idaho Public Television or on the Science Trek website. The show is available for streaming starting at 2:00 p.m. MT.

To get us in the mood, here is some bat trivia for you:

  • Bats make up more than a quarter of all mammals.
  • Bats wash behind their ears.
  • Bats can fly up to 60 m.p.h.
  • Bat poop is called guano. Guano is a valuable fertilizer. Guano was once Texas' largest mineral export before oil was discovered.
  • More than 50 percent of bat species in the United States are listed as endangered or in severe decline.

Check out the show and the bat topic area for more bat information!

After all the dinosaur news last week, you may have thought we were totally up-to-date. No, we have more dinosaur news this week too. Scientists report the discovery of Spinosqurus aegyptiacus, a 95-million-year-old dinosaur that would have been the largest predatory dinosaur to walk, or in this case, swim on the Earth. The Spinosqurus aegyptiacus was nine feet longer than a T-Rex. Its nostrils were pushed toward the top of its skill, and it had teeth just right for snapping up fish. It had strong arms with blade-like claws and short legs. That's why scientists think it was a water-based dinosaur rather than a land animal. There is a very interesting story about how the scientists put the bones together. Read this article from the L.A. Times to learn more.

Have a good week and be sure to watch our Bat show!

September 9, 2014:

Artist's illustration of the dinosaur Dreadnoughtus. Credit: Jennifer Hall

We are going bats at Science Trek! Our new season of broadcast shows start on Tuesday, September 16th with a program answering your questions about these amazing flying mammals. Check it out on Idaho Public Television at 2:00/1:00 p.m. MT/PT or here on the website at that same time.

Lots in the news about dinosaurs. Scientists have found a new "biggest" dinosaur. Lead discoverer, Drexel University paleontologist Kenneth Lacovara, calls it a Dreadnoughtus. Researchers think the dinosaur was 85 feet long, 30 feet tall and weighed 65 tons! That is the same weight as a dozen elephants. Scientists think the Drednoughtus could have been even larger because the bones of the creature they did find were still growing. The Drednoughtus had a 37-foot-long neck and would need to eat about a half ton of food every day. It lived during the Late Cretaceous Era, about 77 million years ago.

So is this plant eater the biggest dinosaur? Some paleontologists think so. Others say the Argentinosaurus was bigger at 70 to 90 tons. Researchers say they have a more complete skeleton of the Dreadnoughtus, so right now it has a better claim to the title of biggest dinosaur. Time will tell. You can learn more about this big find at this article from NBC News.

A team from the Ohio University reports finding another new Late Cretaceous period dinosaur. This dinosaur comes from Tanzania and is called the Rukwatitan bisepultus. This dinosaur is another large-bodied plant eater with a long neck and an estimated two-meter long forelimb. Find out more about this dinosaur in this article from mainenewsonline.com.

Have a great week. Enjoy the Super Moon/Harvest moon on September 9th and be sure to tune into our Bats show next week.

September 2, 2014:

A child using an iPad | Credit: Marcus Kwan (https://www.flickr.com/photos/aperturismo/)

Can't tell if someone is happy or sad? Maybe you've been spending too much time in front of a computer, television, smart phone or tablet. Scientists discovered that kids who spend too much time in front of a screen might lose some of their ability to understand other people's emotions.

Researchers from UCLA took two groups of sixth graders from a California public school. All of the students said they spend about four and half hours each day in front of a screen. The researchers started by showing students photos and video of people. Each picture or video showed a specific emotion like happy, sad, angry or scared. The scientists asked the students to identify the emotions they saw. Half of the students then went to a camp for five days, where they were not allowed to use a computer or smart phone or watch TV. The other half stayed in school and didn't make any change to their usual screen-time habits. After the camp group returned, all of the students were tested again. The children who spent the time without any electronics showed more improvement in identifying emotions than did the students who kept using their screens.

The researchers think their study is important, especially because more schools are using tablets in the classroom. They think there is a negative side of using digital media in education. Patricia Greenfield, the lead researcher and a professor of psychology says, "Decreased sensitivity to emotional cues — losing the ability to understand the emotions of other people . . . " is one of the costs of too much screen time. You can read more about this study in this article from LiveScience.

One note: the study was pretty small, and the scientists couldn't rule out the possibility that just spending time in nature also helped improve the students' ability to read emotions.

So, enjoy my blog and spend some time checking out the Science Trek website, but then turn off the electronics, find a friend and play outside.

Have a good week — and welcome to school if you have just started classes!

August 25, 2014:

Students Playing Duck Duck Goose | Credit: Herald Post (https://www.flickr.com/people/heraldpost/)

School started this week for many young people, but for some, the school day itself starts too early. The American Academy of Pediatricians thinks middle and high school should start later each day. These doctors recommend an 8:30 a.m. start time for these grades. They say making the change is based on good science.

Teens need at least 8.5 hours of sleep each night. Not getting enough sleep can lead to problems like obesity, diabetes, mood changes, behavior problems and lower grades. A team of doctors studied teen sleep for four years. They say that something about hormonal changes in teens' bodies causes a shift in their body clocks, keeping them up later. Also, in teens, the body's normal level of tiredness that builds up during the day is slower to develop, so teens don't get that body cue to go to sleep. They just stay awake longer. Studies show 87% of teens don't get enough sleep. So doctors say for better teen health and better grades, the school day should start later. Read about the doctors' recommendation in this article from Time.

The American Academy of Pediatricians has some suggestions for very young kids too. They now think parents should start brushing children's teeth with fluoride toothpaste as soon as teeth begin to appear, typically between four months and one-year-old. Why? Tooth decay is the most common chronic disease among American children. Fluoride helps reduce tooth decay, which means fewer cavities and better health. Researchers hope making more of an effort to brush sooner could do more to prevent cavities from forming. Doctors also think children should have a fluoride varnish applied to their teeth every three to six months. They do not think young children should use a fluoride rinse because of the risk that the kids might swallow it. You can learn more about teeth at this Science Trek site, and read about the AAP's dental recommendations in this ScienceWorldReport.org article.

Be sure to check out the new and improved topic sites for this season's broadcast shows. Look for these topics: Bats, States of Matter, Astronauts, Earthquakes, Blood, Robotics, Food Web, Water and Soil. These are the broadcast shows we are doing this season, and the websites that support these topics are all up and running. Read through them and send me questions for those shows!

Many thanks to Peggy Hurd, Tony Merrick, Stephanie Dickey, Kris Freeland, Lisa Sommer and Rick Penticoff for getting season 16 of Science Trek off to a great start!

Have a great week!

August 18, 2014:

Math addition Flash Cards on a bulletin board

Quick, what is four plus five? Did you do that in your head or did you need to use your fingers? Scientists have been watching kids' brains as they learn their math skills and have a piece of advice: Do those math fact flash cards.

Children start learning math skills by counting, but when they turn 8 or 9, they start being able to do what is called "fact retrieval." Instead of counting on their fingers, they just know the answer. When that happens, the brain is able to retrieve the answer from memory.

Researchers from Stanford University tested 28 children in a brain-scanning MRI machine. They gave the kids simple math equations and asked for the answer. The scientists then watched what parts of the brain became active. They also tested the same kids face-to-face to see if they moved their lips counting or used their fingers.

They tested the kids twice, a year apart. They found that as the kids got older, their answers came faster and their brain's memory center became more active.

The scientists did similar tests with teenagers and adults and found that older individuals don't use that memory center as much when answering simple math questions. Instead answering math questions was more automatic.

So the researchers think that as children learn math, they start by counting and then move to being able to pull the answer from memory. They also think the more often you pull the answer from memory, the faster or more automatic that effort becomes. Your brain becomes more efficient. Doing addition and subtraction, multiplication and division in your head over and over again creates faster pathways in your brain.

Studies show that how well kids make that jump to answering math questions by memory is a good predictor of how well they will do in math in school overall. So drilling kids on simple addition and multiplication skills when they are young can really can pays off later in school. Read more about this study in this article from the Kansas City Star.

We are looking for questions about what it is like to be an astronaut and what it is like to work in space. If you have a question, send it in. Check out how to do it.

Have a great week!

August 11, 2014:

The color-changing ice cream flavor, Xamaleón. (Credit: Manual Linares, Cocinatis)

They say the world will beat a path to your door if you invent a better mousetrap. How about if you invent a better ice cream? Physicist Manuel Linares thinks he has what the world wants. He has come up with a new ice cream that changes colors as you lick it.

He calls his new invention "Xamaleón." It turns from periwinkle to pink when it touches the tongue. It tastes like "tutti-frutti." The color change happens when there is a change in temperature and because of the acids in your mouth.

Unfortunately, you may have to go a far distance to get this new treat. Linares has opened up an ice cream shop in Blanes, Spain. He promises all sorts of new exotic ice cream flavors in the future. So until you can feast on this colorful treat, read more about it in this article from Discover.

Scientists report they have found a new bat, sort of. Drs. Ricardo Moratelli (from the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation in Brazil) and Don Wilson (from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C.) were studying some museum specimens and found one that they thought was classified incorrectly. After some more study, they have decided that the bat from Bolivia is a "new" species. Myotis midastactus, or Bolivian golden bat, has golden yellow, very short, wooly fur. It eats small insects and lives in holes in the ground, in hollowed trees, or under roofs. It is part of the bigger group of mouse-eared bats.

The scientists have yet to actually catch a live Bolivian golden bat, so its numbers may mean this type of bat is "near threatened." Read more about this new bat in this article from the BBC. You can find out a lot more about bats very soon. Bats are the topic of our first broadcast show this school year. Check out the new Bats site coming soon and watch for the Bats show on September 16th.

Have a great week!

August 08, 2014:

Xbox Controller | Image credit: Eric Holsinger, HolsingerPhoto.com | www.flickr.com/photos/ericholsinger

A little video game time is a good thing for kids. According to an Oxford University study, young people who spend less than an hour a day playing video games are better adjusted than those who don't play at all.

In research published in the journal Pediatrics, Psychologist Dr. Andrew Przybylski asked 5,000 young people aged 10 to 15 years old about their lives. The team asked the students how much time they spent playing video games on either a computer or a console. They also asked the kids other questions like how well they got on with their peers, how likely they were to help people in difficulty, and how happy they were with their lives. Students who played games for less than an hour a day on average were happiest and had the highest levels of “positive social interactions,” — that is, got along with other people well. Dr. Przybylski thinks playing video games give students a common language that helps make social connections. Students who don't play any video games might end up not being part of the conversation and feel shut out.

Don't think this gives you a reason to play video games all the time. The same study showed that children who spent more than three hours a day playing video games were the least well adjusted. So, a little is good, a lot is not. You can read more about the study in this article from the BBC.

Does this dark matter make me look big? Apparently, it does. Astronomers have wondered how much galaxies weigh. By figuring out the mass of a galaxy, scientists can learn more about how galaxies are structured. So, a team of scientists from the University of Edinburgh compared the mass of our home galaxy, the Milky Way, with our closest neighboring galaxy, Andromeda. In a report published this week, the researchers found our home galaxy has about half the mass of its neighbor, making it the lighter of the two. They think Andromeda has twice as much dark matter as the Milky Way, so it is twice as heavy. Dark matter is an invisible substance that makes up most of the outer regions of galaxies. Read more about this discovery in this BBC article.

Speaking of space, we are happy to announce the topic for our November show. We are working with the folks at the Johnson Space Center to answer students' questions about what it is like to work in space or be an astronaut. We are actively looking for questions to pose to scientists who work in space or whose careers support those who do. Do you have a question about working in space? Send it in today!

Just a reminder, August 10th is the next “supermoon.” Find out why it's called a supermoon here.

Have a great week!

July 28, 2014:

Kulindadromeus zabaikalicus. | Image credit: Andrey Atuchin

Almost all dinosaurs probably had feathers. That's news! Scientist had found a number of dinosaurs with feathers that were part of the family from which birds evolved, but now there is a new report of dinosaurs with feathers from a completely different line.

In the journal Science, lead author Pascal Godefroit of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Science in Brussels reports finding a new dinosaur species, Kulindadromeus zabaikalicus. This dinosaur was about 4.5 feet long and ran on two legs. It lived around what is now Siberia's Kulinda River. Kulindadromeus had distinct feathers. It had feather tufts on its legs and elbows and flatter feathers on it back. Godefroit says it had “ribbon-shaped” feathers on its shins. No one had seen these ribbon-shaped feathers on a dinosaur before.

Godefroit and his team think that most dinosaurs had feathers for insulation, to help them stay warm. He says the biggest dinosaurs probably didn't have many feathers because they were large enough to retain heat, just like elephants today don't have fur. But Godefroit says this new discovery suggests that, “the common ancestor of all dinosaurs had feathers,” and that “feathers are not a characteristic [just] of birds but of all dinosaurs.” Read more about this discovery in this article from National Geographic.

Do you like pears? Plums? Cherries? If you were to grow all these stone fruits, you could have a whole orchard or, thanks to one man, you could grow all these fruit and more on just one tree. Artist Sam Van Aken has grown a new variety of tree that produces 40 different types of stone fruit each year.

Van Aken is an artist, but he loves trees. In 2008, he found out that an orchard at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station was about to be shut down due to a lack of funding. If the experimental station closed, it would mean hundreds of rare fruit trees would be lost. So Van Aken bought the land and the trees. He then spent the next five years creating the “Tree of 40 Fruit.”

He used a technique called grafting. You can read how he did it in this article from Science Alert. Aken's “Tree of 40 Fruit” looks like a normal tree, but in spring it blooms with a beautiful variety of pink, white, red and purple blossoms. In the summer, the tree produces an array of plums, peaches, apricots, nectarines, cherries and almonds. So you could have one tree that would provide you with different fruits at different times of the summer.

Right now, Aken has planted the “Tree of 40 Fruit” in a few museums, city centers and a few art collectors' private gardens. No word when it might be available to plant in your back yard, but stay tuned!

We are collecting questions for the first few shows. If you have a question about bats, states of matter, or what it is like to be an astronaut in space, send it in now.

Have a great week!

July 21, 2014:

Turning a book page | Credit: Quinn Anya - Creative Commons

Have you written anything lately? I mean written by hand, not by keyboard? If not, you should. Scientists think writing things by hand is important for your brain, and they think learning to write by hand is especially important for kids. New reports show children learn to read more quickly if they first learn to write out their letters.

Researchers showed children who had not yet learned to read a letter and asked them to do one of three things: trace the letter on a page with a dotted outline, draw the letter on a blank piece of paper or type it on a computer. The kids were then put into a brain scanner and shown the image again.

They found that the brains of the kids who had drawn on the blank piece of paper showed activity in the areas of the brain used when one reads and writes. The kids who traced the letter or typed it on the computer showed no similar brain activity. There appears to be a link between handwriting and educational development.

And the handwriting effect isn't limited to just little kids and reading. Students learn better when they take notes by hand rather than typing them on a keyboard. And there is a difference in the brain if you print or if you use cursive. Printing, writing in cursive, and keyboarding are associated with different brain patterns. Studies suggest students who hand-write assignments produced more words more quickly than they did on a keyboard and were able to express more ideas.

So, get out the pencil and paper and start writing. If you want to read more about this research, here is an interesting article on the subject from the New York Times.

Here is a science story for these hot weather times. Three students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have come up with a creative use of ice cream. They have combined a Cuisinart soft-serve ice cream maker and a 3-D printer and are able to make super-cooled 3-D printed shells of ice cream. They “printed” out ice cream stars and other shapes. They don't think ice cream printed-in-the-shape-of-your-choice will be available anytime soon, but they did want to gets kids’ attention. The three students want kids to know that working with technology can be fun. Read more about the experiment in this article from Techcrunch.com.

Have a great week!

July 16, 2014:

Pieces of dark chocolate

Chocolate fans celebrate! Scientists know why dark chocolate is good for you. Researcher John Finley reports that when you eat dark chocolate, your body turns it into compounds that help your heart.

Finley says they found a specific microbe in your digestive tract. When you eat dark chocolate, this good microbe feasts on it. As these good microbes grow, they produce anti-inflammatory compounds. These anti-inflammatory compounds are good for your heart. And there is another bonus. As the good microbes grow in numbers, they push out bad microbes that cause stomach problems. So eating dark chocolate is really good for you — unfortunately, not so much for the more popular milk chocolate. Read more about this study in this press release from the American Chemical Society.

Did you see the super moon last Saturday? A super moon happens when the Earth is at its closest point in its orbit to the full moon. These full moons appear to be noticeably larger. The scientific name for a super moon is called a perigee moon. If you missed it, don't fret. We will have two more super moons this year. Check out the night sky on August 10th and September 9th. The super moon on August 10th will be extra super because the time of the full moon happens at the same hour of perigee, the point when moon enters its closest orbit to Earth.

Speaking of the moon, we should all take time on Saturday to celebrate the 45th anniversary of human's first landing on the moon. On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldren stepped onto the moon's surface. I wasn't very old at the time, but I remember how amazing it was to see the grainy black and white pictures of the surface of the moon. It was totally awesome. Check out the “We Choose the Moon” website to experience that Apollo 11 mission for yourself. The website was built for the 40th anniversary, but it still remains a very cool website to explore. Buzz Aldren is asking people to share their memories of the landing on social media. You can find out more about that way to celebrate here.

I plan to mark the occasion with some dark chocolate!

Have a great week.

June 30, 2014:

Digging for Neanderthal remains.

Scientists have discovered the oldest human poop. Researchers found 50,000-year-old poop in a “caveman campground” in Spain. They think Neanderthals, a close relative of Homo sapiens or modern humans, left the feces near the remains of a fire.

Scientists call fossilized poop ‘coprolites.’ Chemists study ancient coprolite to learn more about life thousands of years ago. Based on the chemicals found in this ancient coprolite, scientists think these Neanderthals ate plants as well as meat. That's big news.

It was long thought that Neanderthals ate primarily meat. Some scientists thought a meat-only diet could have been one of the reasons why Neanderthals went extinct. But this new poop indicates that Neanderthals in this part of the world had a fairly balanced diet. In other words, they ate their veggies. So, scientists who study human evolution have a lot more thinking and exploring to do. If you want to learn more about ancient poop, check out this article from the BBC.

I will be on vacation, so enjoy the 4th of July holiday and check out my blog in two weeks.

June 23, 2014:

Brushing a Tooth

Big news for your teeth! Researchers at King's College in London have developed a way to fix a cavity without drilling. The technique is called “Electrically Accelerated and Enhanced Remineralisation” or EAER.

A cavity happens when food particles get left on teeth. The bacteria in your mouth digest the food, turning it into acids. Those acids combine with other things to form plaque, which clings to your teeth, dissolving the enamel and making holes or cavities. To fix a cavity, the dentist drills around the hole to clean out the area and then fills it with a resin. The procedure can be painful and expensive.

But this new technique uses tiny electric currents to draw in the calcium and phosphates already found in your teeth to replace the minerals lost during decay. This process “repairs” the hole. No drilling and no fillings needed! The technique not only helps your body self-repair a cavity, but it also whitens teeth. It costs about the same as the old way and doesn't hurt.

Now, this doesn't mean you can stop brushing and flossing your teeth. It is far easier and cheaper to prevent tooth decay, and this new treatment won't be available for another three years at least. But since 2.3 billion people suffer from tooth decay every year, news of this discovery is enough to make us all smile. Read more about this research in this article from the Independent.

Ever wonder why your earbuds always get tangled? It's physics! Dorian M. Raymer and Douglas E. Smith of the University of California at San Diego Department of Physics studied what happens to cords that are sealed in a rotating box, simulating what happens when you stuff your earbuds in your pocket. They found that it only takes about two tumbles for the cords to start creating knots.

The researchers found that knots don't seem to form in cords less than 46 centimeters in length. But the probability that knots will form rises dramatically when the cord is longer, between 46 and 150 centimeters in length. Most earbuds are about 133 centimeters, putting them at the peak of the risk of tangling. And the fact that earbuds are a “Y-shaped” cord makes the odds of tangling even worse. So put your earbuds in your pocket and move even a little, and the cords “spontaneously knot.” Researchers hope someday manufactures will make earbuds with thicker wires to prevent bending and looping and thus reduce your daily tangle. Read more about this study in this article from the Business Insider.

We have rearranged our 2014-2015 schedule of shows a bit. Check out the new list and send in your questions!

Have a great week!

June 9, 2014:

Apollo 17 astronaut collecting rocks on the moon

Who would have thought the moon, which shines so peacefully and beautifully in the night sky, started out as part of a possible planet killer? Well, scientists of course.

Researchers from the University of Goettingen in Germany think they have found evidence that the moon is the result of a crash between the Earth and a planet called Theia. They think that Theia collided with the Earth 4.5 billion years ago and that the moon formed from the leftover debris. Scientists have accepted this theory for years, but until now no one has provided proof.

Scientists in Germany think they have done just that. They analyzed some of the lunar rock brought back by the Apollo astronauts and found a “chemical fingerprint” of an alien planet. The scientists were looking for differences in the amount of oxygen contained in the moon rocks as compared to oxygen levels in Earth rocks. The difference in this case was pretty small, but it is still there.

Now, not every scientist thinks the evidence presented by the German researchers is proof, so there are still questions. Next time you look up at the moon and admire its beauty, you can still wonder where it came from. Read more about this scientific debate in this BBC article.

BTW, Theia was a goddess in Greek mythology who was the mother of Selene, goddess of the moon. Nice name for a planet that tried to wipe out the Earth.

On to my next science story . . . Rats feel regret. That's what scientists from the University of Minnesota think and it's a big deal. If true, this is the first time regret has been found in a mammal other than humans.

It is important to understand that regret is different from disappointment. Regret, according to Professor David Redish, is “the recognition that you made a mistake, that if you had done something else, you would have been better off.”

The researchers developed an experiment they called “Restaurant Row,” in which rats had to decide how long they were willing to wait for different foods. Rats could choose whether to wait longer for foods they really liked or to move on to a different option in order to get food more quickly. Sometimes the food in the shorter line wasn't as good. When the rats made a bad food choice, they would pause and look back at the reward they passed over. These same rats then changed their behavior and were more likely to wait longer for the good reward and ate that food faster.

Professor Redish said they found similar brain activity in these regretful mice as they did in regretful humans. They hope to use this information to better understand how regret affects the decisions we humans make. Read more about this study here.

Professor Redish noted something important about rats and regret, something you should think about. Activity in the rat's brain represented what the rat should have done, not the missed reward. “This makes sense because you don't regret the thing you didn't get, you regret the thing you didn't do.” That is an important lesson to learn whether you are mice or men.

Have a good week.

June 2, 2014:

This artist's conception depicts the Kepler-10 star system, located about 560 light-years away from Earth near the Cygnus and Lyra constellations. [Credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech | http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Kepler-10_star_system.jpg]

How would you like to find the “Godzilla of Earths”? Scientists report finding just that, an exoplanet with a mass 17 times that of Earth. It is called Kepler-10c and it is about 560 light years away. What makes this exoplanet so remarkable is that scientists didn't think planets this big could be solid. Comparably-sized planets in our own solar system are gas planets, that is, they are really big balls of gas rather than solid rock.

This mega-earth revolves around a star that is about 11 billion years old. That means this star formed early in the history of the universe. That has scientists even more puzzled. Is there life on this “Godzilla of Earths”? Professor Dimitar Sasselov, director of the Harvard Origins of Life Initiative, is not sure, but he says, “If you can make rocks, you can make life.” Read more about this discovery in this BBC article.

Speaking of old things, scientists report finding an ancient sea animal thought extinct for four million years. The very small sea animal called the Protulophila forms tiny holes on the tubes of marine worms. Researchers didn't think the creatures lived outside of Europe, but some scientists studying marine worms in New Zealand found the Protulophia living on them. Scientists call these creatures “living fossils.” Read more about it in this CNN article.

Want to live well for a long time? Here is one suggestion from science. Learning a second language improves your brain. A new study published in the Annals of Neurology found that reading, verbal fluency and intelligence were improved by learning a second language.

Researchers looked at intelligence tests from kids tested at age 11. Then they re-tested the same volunteers, who were now in their seventies. Of the group, 195 learned a foreign language before they turned 18 and 65 learned a second language as an adult. The scientists found that those people who knew more than one language had much better cognitive skills than those who did not learn a second language. It did not seem to matter if they learned the language as an adult or as a child. Other studies have shown knowing a second language helps delay dementia. So maybe you and your parents should take that foreign language class! Read more about this study in this BBC news article.

Here's something just for fun — to find out why bacon smells so good, check out this American Chemical Society "Reactions" video. Enjoy!

From filing Bats for Science Trek, Bat on the ceiling.

By the way, we've started going bats! We have started pre-production on next season's shows, and our first show of the new season is all about bats. Videographer Pat Metzler and I joined scientists from Idaho's Department of Fish and Game and representatives from Idaho Power to check out a bat maternity ward. Here is a picture, but you'll have to wait until September 16th to see the video. If you have a bat question, now is the time to submit it. Send it in here.

Have a good week!


May 20, 2014:

Little Redfish star trail with moon light [Credit: Charles Knowles | https://www.flickr.com/photos/theknowlesgallery/6213067900/]

Check out the newest Science Trek show where we will answer your questions about garbage! Watch on Idaho Public Television on Tuesday, May 20th at 2:00/1:00 p.m. MT/PT or or watch it here online.

Great science news this week . . .

There is a new meteor shower coming up Friday night/Saturday morning (May 23/24). This is the first time the Earth has run into the debris from Comet 209P/LINEAR. It orbits the sun every five years and was discovered in 2004. Scientists call this the Camelopardalid meteor shower and say it is unique. The debris from the shower is influenced by Jupiter's gravity. William Cooke from NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center says they don't know if it will be a few meteors or a couple hundred per hour. But they do know that the showers we see are from dust the comet ejected back in the 1800's. In North America, look for the peak from midnight to 2:00am Saturday night. Read more about it in this article from USA Today.

Scientists this week also claim to have found the bones of what would have been the world's largest dinosaur. This yet-to-be-named dinosaur is thought to have been 130 feet long from the top of its head to the tip of its tail and stood 65 feet high. That's equal to a seven-story building. They think it would have weighed 80 tons. The previous largest dinosaur, the Argentinosaurus, was about 10 tons lighter. Scientists think this new dinosaur lived nearly 100 million years ago. The fossils were found near the town of El Sombrero in central Argentina. There are some folks who think it is too early to give this new dinosaur the title of the biggest because researchers haven't found a complete skeleton, so more news to come. Read about the find in this article from the Washington Post.

Now, as promised, I am announcing the topics for our next season, with one exception (we still need to confirm it).

Here is the 2014-2015 Science Trek schedule:

  • September 16: Bats
  • October 21: Earthquakes
  • November 18: TBA
  • December 16: States of Matter
  • January 20: Blood
  • February 17: Robotics
  • March 17: Food Web
  • April 15: Water
  • May 20: Soil

Start sending in your questions today!

Be sure to tune into the Garbage show or watch it here online.

May 12, 2014:

Kids Walking to a Field Trip [Credit: woodleywonderworks | https://www.flickr.com/photos/wwworks/2906616376]

Feeling the pressure of school tests? Run out ideas? Go take a walk. Scientists from Santa Clara University have published a new study that says people generate more creative ideas when they walk than when they sit.

Marilyn Oppezzo, a psychology professor, asked volunteers to come up with new and different uses for common items like a tire. In the first experiment, the volunteers had four minutes to come up with a list of ideas. The first time, they were sitting. The second time, they were walking on a treadmill. Of the 48 people in the study, 81% improved their creative output when walking. In a second experiment, volunteers were given three words and asked to come up with one word that could be combined with the first three to make common phrases. On this test, walkers did a little worse than sitters. The researchers think that means walking doesn't improve brainpower overall but that creative thinking is enhanced by walking. So next time you need a new way of looking at a problem, walk! You can read more about this study in this article from the Los Angeles Times.

Scientists this week report photographing the deepest-ever living fish. A UK-Japan team found the shoals 4.8 miles deep in the Japan Trench of the Pacific Ocean. The fish's official name is Pseudoliparis amblystomopsis, and they have been seen eating shrimp. The fish live in complete darkness and use vibration receptors on their snouts to navigate and to find food.

Scientists are very curious about animals that live this deep in the ocean. There isn't a lot of food at that depth, and there is a lot of pressure from all the weight of the water, so not a lot survives. It is also tough to do research at that depth.

Researchers have found a different fish, an Abyssobrothla galathaea, at a depth of more than five miles, but it was dead by the time it reached the surface. These new pictures give scientist new clues as to how animals live so far deep in the ocean.

We have one more show in our 15th season. Be sure to tune in next week on Tuesday, May 20th to learn all about garbage! Next week, I will be announcing the topics for most of our 2014-2015 shows, so stay tuned for that too!

Have a good week.

May 5, 2014:

Rock Paper Scissors [Credit: Helmut Hess | https://www.flickr.com/people/helmuthess/ ]

Science can help you win at rock-paper-scissors. Chance predicts the odds of winning at this game at one in three, but researchers at Zhejiang University in China have discovered a way to help you win more games.

The scientists divided 360 students into groups of six. Each student played 300 rounds of rock-paper-scissors against another member of their group. The researchers tracked who won, who lost and how each game was played. They found something surprising.

When a player won a round, he or she tended to repeat the winning rock, paper or scissor move more often than would be expected at random. Losers tended to switch to a different move, going from rock to paper to scissors in that order. This “win-stay lose-shift” way of doing things is known as conditional response and may be hard wired in our brains. So, if you want to win at this game, watch what your opponent is doing and anticipate his or her next move so you can counter and win.

One other study note — a previous experiment found that rock-paper-scissor players unconsciously mimic the actions of their opponents, so another way to win is to do something different. Read more about this study here on the BBC.

Oh, by the way, may the 4th be with you! Yes, I am a Star Wars fan. Here is the May 4th greeting developed by NASA to celebrate the day.

As you celebrate this day, just remember . . . Tuesday is “Revenge of the Sixth”! :-)

Have a great week!

April 29, 2014:

Three-toed-sloth (Bradypus variegatus), Lake Gatun, Republic of Panama. [Credit: Stefan Laube]

I am spending my week with a bad cold. It is hard to breathe when your nose is stuffed. I suppose it is even harder to breathe when you are upside down. Most mammals can't spend too much time upside down because it becomes too hard to breathe. One notable exception is the sloth.

Scientists have studies sloths and found that they have a special “adhesions” that help anchor their internal organs in place. That means that when a sloth is upside down, its other internal organs don't push down on the lungs as would happen to most mammals. If the internal organs don't move, then sloths can breathe easier upside down.

This adhesion is important because a sloth's internal organs can get quite heavy. Sloths only come down from the canopy of the trees to the ground about once a week to poop. Sloths can hold up to one third of its body weight in poop and urine in its bowels. So everything inside needs to stay in place for sloths to survive. You can read more about this sloth study in the journal Biology Letters or in this LiveScience.com article.

We are working on our last show of the season. We'll be answering your questions about garbage on May 20th. We'll be announcing the new topics for next season soon so stay tuned!

Have a good week. Achoo!

April 21, 2014:

NASA's Global Selfie for Earth Day graphic

We celebrate Earth Day this week. Earth Day happens on April 22nd and we mark it to inspire awareness and appreciation for the Earth.

NASA is planning a big Earth Day celebration. They are asking folks to take a selfie and upload it to NASA. They'll take all the pictures and make a composite Earth shot. I'll post my selfie here next week and post the NASA picture when it is available. Find out how you can participate here.

Scientists have found the first Earth-sized exoplanet orbiting in a habitable zone. An exoplanet is a planet orbiting a star in another solar system. Most of the exoplanets discovered are either too far away from their suns or too close and are not the right size to sustain life. This one — Kepler-186f — is about the same size as Earth and is in what is called the “Goldilocks Zone,” meaning it isn't too close or too far from its sun. Scientists don't know if the planet has water necessary for life or if it has a protective atmosphere like Earth, but they do think finding this one means there are lots more like it out there in the universe. You can find out more about exoplanets on the exoplanet site or you can read more about this discovery in this article from the Los Angeles Times.

Lunar eclipse hidden behind cloud cover - as viewed from Boise, Idaho, April 2014

And last week I promised to post my picture of the full lunar eclipse. Here it is.

We had cloud cover so it isn't a great shot, but it was fascinating to watch the eclipse of the moon. Here are some much better pictures of the moon turning red during last week's eclipse. Check out NASA's Lunar Eclipse Flickr Group for many great shots.

Have a great Earth Day and a great week.

April 21, 2014:

NASA's Global Selfie for Earth Day graphic

We celebrate Earth Day this week. Earth Day happens on April 22nd and we mark it to inspire awareness and appreciation for the Earth.

NASA is planning a big Earth Day celebration. They are asking folks to take a selfie and upload it to NASA. They'll take all the pictures and make a composite Earth shot. I'll post my selfie here next week and post the NASA picture when it is available. Find out how you can participate here.

Scientists have found the first Earth-sized exoplanet orbiting in a habitable zone. An exoplanet is a planet orbiting a star in another solar system. Most of the exoplanets discovered are either too far away from their suns or too close and are not the right size to sustain life. This one — Kepler-186f — is about the same size as Earth and is in what is called the “Goldilocks Zone,” meaning it isn't too close or too far from its sun. Scientists don't know if the planet has water necessary for life or if it has a protective atmosphere like Earth, but they do think finding this one means there are lots more like it out there in the universe. You can find out more about exoplanets on the exoplanet site or you can read more about this discovery in this article from the Los Angeles Times.

Lunar eclipse hidden behind cloud cover - as viewed from Boise, Idaho, April 2014

And last week I promised to post my picture of the full lunar eclipse. Here it is.

We had cloud cover so it isn't a great shot, but it was fascinating to watch the eclipse of the moon. Here are some much better pictures of the moon turning red during last week's eclipse. Check out NASA's Lunar Eclipse Flickr Group for many great shots.

Have a great Earth Day and a great week.

April 14, 2014:

Blood Moon | Credit: FrauBucher (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Oct_28_2004_total_lunar_eclipse-espenak.png)

We have a new Science Trek broadcast show for you this week! Check out our show about the Earth, Tuesday 2:00/1:00 p.m. MT/PT or view the streaming version here on the Science Trek website. Be sure to also watch Science Trek: The Web Show. It is really good!

2014's first lunar eclipse happens this week. It will occur overnight April 14th and 15th, peaking about 1:00 a.m. MT. A lunar eclipse happens when the Earth's shadow blocks the sun's light. This one should be a total eclipse and visible from the Americas, Australia and out in the Pacific Ocean. The moon may turn a red color during the part of the total eclipse because some light from the sun is passing through the Earth's atmosphere and getting bent as it heads toward the moon. Red light tends to make it through a bit easier. The exact shade of red seems to depend upon how much dust and clouds are in the atmosphere. Send me a picture of the eclipse in your area and I'll post it next week.

My other bit of science news for the week is a report answering the vexing question: How do flies escape the fly swatter? Researcher Florian Muijres and colleagues used high-speed cameras to film flies' quick escapes. They found that flies can make a quick sideways turn in a just a few beats of their wings. Instead of rotating like an airplane, flies can make sharp pitches and rolls, and when threatened they do it five times faster than their normal in-flight turns. The researchers think flies have special sensory-motor circuits in their brains to help them respond so quickly to a threat like a fly swatter. Read more about it in this EuekAlert report.

Enjoy this week's new Earth show and be sure to send in your best pictures of the total eclipse of the moon.

Have a great week!

April 7, 2014:

Kid on a Computer | Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mikemcilveen/5454636825

Spend less time in front of a screen and you may feel better and do better in school. Studies show that kids currently spend about 40 hours a week on average in front of a screen: a TV, a computer, a gaming device, tablet or smart phone. A report this week suggests we would all be better off turning off those screens now and then and that parents need to step up to make sure the kids hit the off button.

Researchers at Iowa State University studied the effects of parental monitoring of screen time. They looked at the media habits of more than 1,300 4th and 5th graders.

They found that when parents take an active role in monitoring screen time, kids spend less time in front of their electronics. The researchers also found something else. They discovered that kids who reduce their screen time get more sleep, perform better in school, both academically and behaviorally and registered a lower body mass. They said parents might not see the changes because each one happens in small ways, but adding it all up it leads to more healthy kids.

I hear what you are saying. I produce videos to watch on a screen as well as this blog to read on a screen. The research suggests that kids should spend less time in front of the screen. So pick and chose the best (that's us) and enjoy some time off the screen. Go outside. Read together. Get some exercise. All good advice.

And in the name of planning ahead so you can save some screen time for Science Trek, I just want to remind you that we have a new broadcast show next week. Be sure to watch our episode answering questions about the Earth! Watch it on Idaho Public Television on April 15th at 2:00/1:00 p.m. MT/PT or view the streaming version here on the Science Trek website. We are also looking for any Garbage questions. Send in your question.

Enjoy a little less screen time and have a good week!

March 31, 2014:

Math Borders | http://www.tesindia.com/teaching-resource/Maths-Cut-out-Borders-7005288/

Learning math? Wave your hands! Yes, gestures help kids learn math.

According to research by Miriam Novack from the department of psychology at the University of Chicago, eight-year-olds learned math concepts better when they used gestures.

In a study, 100 children were taught to solve a formula like

4+2+6 = __+6

One group made a V-point beneath the numbers being added. The students then pointed at the blank. The second group used magnetic tiles on a white board to solve the problem. The third group just mimed, or pretended to use the magnetic tiles. Then the scientists tested all the children on the underlying mathematical principles. The children who used gestures were the only group able to solve other problems that used similar concepts. Using gestures helped the children learn what psychologists call “generalization.”

Psychologists think that when children move and make gestures, they are able to express ideas physically. That helps the learning process. These scientists think that abstract gestures may be a better teaching tool than manipulating or touching objects. So the next time you are trying to do your math homework, try adding a little movement with your math. You can read more about this study in this article from the BBC.

Crows understand water displacement at the level of a small child. | Credit: Sarah Jelbert; CC-BY

How smart are crows? A new study suggests that in some ways, crows may be as smart as a 5-7 year-old child. Scientists from the University of Auckland tested some New Caledonian crows to see if they understood how to displace water in a tube to receive a reward.This is called “causal understanding.”

The crows completed four of six water displacement tasks, like preferring to drop stones into a water-filled tube instead of a sand-filled tube. The crows failed two more challenging tasks, ones that required the crows to adjust for a wider tube or a U-shaped tube. Still, the researchers say crows have some understanding of the “causal properties of volume displacement,” at about the same level of understanding as a 5-7 year-old. Pretty smart crows! Read more about the study in this ScienceDaily article.

We are editing our Earth show that airs on April 15th and taking questions for our Garbage show. Send those questions in today. Click here to find out how.

Have a great week!

March 17, 2014:

Escherichia coli (E. coli | Credit: Image courtesy of Aston University

Do you follow the ‘5 second rule?’ According to study conducted by researchers at Aston University's School of Life and Health Sciences, 87% of us would eat food dropped on their floor. But is it a good idea? These same researchers decided to find out.

Biology students studied the transfer of bacteria from the floor to a piece of food. They studied different types of flooring (carpet, laminate and tiled) and different types of food (toast, pasta, biscuits and sticky sweets). They wanted to know how much bacteria transferred onto the food from three to 30 seconds.

Here is what they learned:

  • The longer the food was on the floor, the more bacteria transferred.
  • Carpet transferred the least amount of bacteria and the most bacteria transferred from laminate or tiled surfaces.

Professor Anthony Hilton says the ‘5 second rule’ is probably true, though there is some bacterial transfer anytime you drop food. So if you drop that piece of toast on the carpet, go ahead and grab it right away and eat it. You'll probably be just fine. Read more about the study in this article from Science Daily.

Joan as a bird of prey!

You might not know it by the weather outside, but spring starts on Thursday, March 20th at 10:57 p.m. MDT. Spring starts with the vernal equinox. The vernal equinox happens when the tilt of the Earth relative to the sun is zero, which basically means the day and night are approximately 12 hours long. Now the days in the northern hemisphere will start getting longer! Enjoy!

Something else to enjoy . . . our newest broadcast show airs tomorrow, March 18th!! Check out our Birds of Prey show at 2:00/1:00 p.m. MT/PT on Idaho Public Television or here on the Science Trek website.

I am taking spring break next week so the blog will be back on March 31st. Since March came in like a lion, let's hope it goes out like a lamb. Check out the new show and have a great couple of weeks.

March 10, 2014:

An Alarm Clock

Tired today? Having trouble paying attention? Blame the shift to daylight savings time. Research shows car accidents rise 6% on the Monday and Tuesday after we “spring forward.” Productivity at school and work also falls. Why? We are sleepy. The risk seems to fade by the end of the week, but sleepy Monday and risky Tuesday are something to be aware of.

By the way, Ben Franklin did suggest daylight savings time but he didn't “invent” it. And we don't move the clocks forward because of farmers either. In fact, the farm lobby opposed the idea of daylight savings time. Instead, the change first happened during World War I and World War II to save fuel. From 1945-1966, there was no federal daylight savings time. It was up to the states to decide whether to adopt it or not. In 1974, President Nixon signed the law making daylight savings time more uniform across the nation, though Arizona, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Guam and the Northern Marianas Islands still do not change their clocks. Most European nations observe daylight savings time but many African and Asian nations do not. Daylight savings time does save fuel but we spend more money on evening activities. And what is the solution to the dangers of shifting the clock forward? Go to bed earlier! Read more about the impact of daylight savings time in this article from USA Today.

Now here's some news about people who never seem to tire. Preschoolers might just be smarter than college students. Researchers at the University of California, Berkley and the University of Edinburgh were studying how people learn. They gave 106 preschoolers and 170 college students a game called “blickets.” In this game, the player has to place differently-shaped clay pieces on a red-topped box. The right combination of the shapes would make the box light up and play music. The researchers found that the preschoolers were better at figuring how to get the box to work. Why? They think young children are more flexible and less biased than college students (and adults) are in their ideas about cause and effect. As we grow older, we gain experience and use that experience to solve other problems. Usually it works, but sometimes all that experience can close our minds to unusual ideas. Scientists are going to keep studying what makes young children's minds more flexible in hopes of finding out how to teach machines to learn in more human ways. Read more about this study in this article from Eurkealert.

Have a great week and get some more sleep!

March 3, 2014:

Kefir Grains - the root of ancient Chinese cheese | Credit: Fotografiert von A. Kniesel | http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Kefirpilze.jpg

Archaeologists have found the world's oldest cheese. How old you ask? How about dating back to as early as 1615 BC! Archaeologists were investigating graves at the Small River Cemetery, Number 5 in northwestern China. Swedish archaeologists first looked into this ancient site in the 1930s. Scientists often found ancient bodies with oddly shaped crumbs on their necks and chests. So they sent their findings to a lab at Germany's Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics. Researchers there finally figured out that the clumps were cheese. The cheese was made by mixing milk with a “starter” of bacteria and yeast, a process some use today to make kefir, a sour dairy drink. The cheese came out looking something like cottage cheese and was very low in lactose. Some people have a problem digesting lactose found in milk and milk products.

Scientists were surprised to find this type of cheese so early in human history and made by this process. They thought cheese was invented when humans began carrying milk in bags made of animal gut. Cheese today is made with rennet, a substance from the guts of a calf, lamb or kid that curdles milk.

The cheese was able to survive so long because of the unusual conditions at the gravesites. The dry desert air and the salty soil sort of freeze-dried the remains, both of the people and of the cheese.

So why did these ancient people bury cheese with their dead? Archaeologists aren't sure but they guess it may have been food for the afterlife. You can read more about it in this article from USA Today.

Have a great week.

February 25, 2014:

Ancient zircon from Earth's crust

Scientists in the Jack Hills region of Western Australia have found the oldest scrap of the Earth's crust. Researchers found a tiny crystal and dated it to 4.4 billion years old. The Earth itself is about 4.6 billion years old. Researchers think this means the Earth had formed a solid crust much sooner than previously thought. Very little of the Earth's early crust is around for scientists to study. Plate tectonics and weathering have disturbed most of the Earth's early surface. Scientists can still find 3.5 billion year old rock formations in a few spots on the planet. This small piece of ancient zircon was found in newer sandstone. Scientists studied the crystal's uranium and lead atoms to determine its age. You can read more about it in this article from the BBC.

The Hyundai Company announced a new car fueled by an unusual source: poop! The car will use fuel made from processed sewage. Here's how it works: the waste from toilets and sinks is converted into hydrogen. Solids are separated from the water. Microbes are added, and these microscopic bugs turn the sludge into methane and CO2. The methane gets filtered and is finally turned into hydrogen gas. The cars come with unlimited hydrogen refueling at a dozen pumps in southern California. Filling the tank takes about three minutes and is good for about 300 miles. Read more about it on LiveScience.

And these are my favorite science news highlights for the week!

February 17, 2014:

Our newest Weather show airs on Idaho Public Television and on the Science Trek website on Tuesday, February 18th. Check it out starting at 2:00/1:00 p.m. MT/PT.

Weather map of North America with jet stream

Speaking of weather, scientists from Rutgers University in New Jersey reported on a major change in the jet stream over North America and Northern Europe this week. Professor Jennifer Francis says the jet stream has increasingly taken a longer, more meandering path. The jet stream is a high-speed air current in the atmosphere that brings the weather with it. So, if the jet stream is hanging around longer, it means the weather stays the same longer. The change in the jet stream's path also means colder weather gets driven further south and warmer weather gets pushed higher north. England and the U.S. Mid-West and East coast have experienced some wild winter weather this year. Scientists say the change in the jet stream means folks in these parts of the world can expect more of the same. Not good news.

The researchers think the change in the jet stream is a result of recent warming of the Arctic. The jet stream is fueled partly by the temperature differences between the Arctic and the mid-latitudes of the Earth. You can read more about this study in this article from the BBC.

One other quick bit of science news of note for the week. It turns out crocodiles can climb trees. Four different species can climb really high. Scientists think it helps the animals regulate their body temperatures and gives them a chance to check out their habitat. The climbing crocks live in Australia, Africa and North America, so if you are in a place were crocodiles live, you might want to look up occasionally. Yikes! Read more about it in this LiveScience article.

Have a good week!

February 10, 2014:

Cedar Sculpin [Credit: USGS]

Good news out of North Idaho and Western Montana. Scientists there have identified a new species of freshwater fish. It is called the cedar sculpin and it has a really big head compared to its body. It is about 3.5 inches long. Researchers at the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station have been studying sculpin and were able to find a difference between the cedar sculpin and its cousin, the shorthead sculpin. The newly identified fish differs in its spine and tooth patterns. Sculpin are found in headwaters of the rivers in this region and are an important food supply for trout. They are also considered an “indicator species” because they are sensitive to water quality. How well they are doing tells us a lot about the health of the stream in which they live. Being identified as an official new species is good news for the fish too. It means it is now against the law to use the bigheaded fish for bait. Read more about the fish and how it got its name in this National Geographic article.

Valentine's day is coming up this week and I must confess to having a bit of a sweet tooth. Honeybees like sweets too but apparently they have a sweet claw. Scientists at the University of Toulouse, France have found that honeybees have hair-like structures on their mouthparts, antenna and the end part of their legs. This tarsi or claw-like structure at the end of a bee's leg has receptor nerve cells that are particularly sensitive to sugar. The scientists studied hundreds of honeybees. They put sugary, bitter and salty solutions on their tarsi to see if the bees would put out or pull in their tongues. Bees really reacted to sweet tastes. Scientists think having sweet-sensitive claws would allow worker bees to detect nectar as soon as they landed on a flower. That would save time, handy if you are bee that has to visit lots of flowers. And if you thought tasting sweets via your front claw was impressive, bees also have amazing abilities to detect salt from afar. The scientists found that the part of the bee's leg just before the claw, known as the tarsomere, was highly sensitive to salty tastes. Bees hovering over water ponds can detect the presence of salt in the water through their hanging legs. Read more about this research in this article from Eurekalert.

Have a great week, a happy Valentine's Day!

February 3, 2014:

Do you smell like the one you love? If you were a lemur, you would.

Coquerel's Sifakas, Ankarafantsika National Park, Madagascar [Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Frank Vassen]

Researchers at Duke University studied the scents given off by Coquerel's sifaka lemurs. They found that the stronger the connection between two lemurs, the more they smelled alike. How did the scientists figure this out? The sifaka lemurs have glands in their throats and in other areas of their bodies that secrete sticky goo. The scientists collected that goo and analyzed each lemur's individual chemical signature. They then compared the chemical signatures of groups of lemurs. It turns out that the scents of lemur couples with babies smelled the most alike. Couples without offspring were less in sync than the parent lemurs, but they still had very similar scents. It seems the stronger the love, the more similar the smell.

So why do lemurs in love smell alike? The scientists aren't sure. It might be a way or defending territories or it might be a way lemurs shows off to others that they are in love. I am hoping my Valentine sends flowers instead. Read more about the lemur study in this Popular Science article.

Have a great week!

January 27, 2014:

Three science reports caught my attention this week.

New River Dolphin - Boto do Araguaia

First, scientists in Brazil have found a new species of river dolphin. River dolphins are among the rarest creatures in the world. The new river dolphin is called the Araguaia River Dolphin, named after the river in which it lives. Researchers think there are only about 1,000 of them living today. That means they are considered critically endangered. River dolphins are distantly related to their sea-going cousins. They have long beaks so they can hunt for fish in the mud at the bottom of rivers. You can read more about them in this article from the BBC.

The possible face of a European Hunter Gatherer

The BBC also reported today on what scientists think ancient hunter-gathers looked like — and it is a surprise. Researchers were able to take DNA from the bones and teeth of two skeletons discovered in a cave in the mountains of Spain. The men lived 7,000 years ago. The scientists used the results to create a drawing of what the men might have looked like. Their DNA is most closely linked to modern-day residents of Finland and Sweden, but these ancient peoples had an unusual combination of dark skin, dark hair, and blue eyes. Scientists had thought ancient people's skin grew lighter when they moved from Africa into Europe because they would be exposed to less sun. But these findings show differently. The scientists also learned a bit more about how these ancient people lived. These particular ancient hunter-gatherers ate mainly protein, were lactose-intolerant (unable to digest a protein found in milk and milk products), and were unable to digest starch. Read more about it here.

A colourful stomatopod, the peacock mantis shrimp, (Odontodactylus scyllarus) seen in the Andaman Sea off Thailand

Finally, the American Association for the Advancement of Science reports on the amazing abilities of the mantis shrimp. The mantis shrimp have 12 different types of photoreceptors in their eyes. Most mammals have two types. Humans have three. Some birds and reptiles have four. So why do these shrimp have so many? Well, researchers think it has to do with where and how these shrimp live.

Even though these shrimp have four times as many photoreceptors in their eyes, they can't tell the difference between similar colors. Researchers taught some mantis shrimp to associate food rewards with various colors. They found that the shrimp couldn't tell the difference between light orange and dark yellow.

Still, having 12 photoreceptors in their eyes is an advantage. Scientists think that each of the 12 photoreceptors have a different sensitivity to look over objects and recognize the basic colors almost immediately. When looking at color, our human eyes send a signal to our brain for comparison. Mantis shrimp seem to skip that step. That speed may help them recognize a predator or prey more quickly, especially in the colorful coral reefs in which they live. Read more about it here.

Have a great week!

January 21, 2014:

Simple Machnes

Our newest broadcast show airs today! Find out more about simple machines. Watch Idaho Public Television at 2:00/1:00pm MT/PT or check out the online show on the Science Trek website.

The Sun is quieting down. That surprises scientists because the Sun is suppose be in an active phase. The Sun has an 11-year cycle of activity like sunspots, flares and coronal mass ejections. The Sun is supposed to be at its peak of activity this year, but scientists say it is being very inactive. Dr. Lucie Green from University of London's Mullard Space Science Laboratory says it feels like the Sun is asleep.

Scientists have been looking at ice-cores. These ice-cores show a long-term record of solar activity. These tests suggest that the Sun's decline in activity is the fastest that has been seen in 10,000 years.

This has happened before. During the latter half of the 1600, the Sun went through a quiet period scientists call the Maunder Minimum. This sleepy Sun period coincided with very cold winters in Europe. Conditions were so cold that some thought of the period as a mini-Ice Age. Scientists think low solar activity reduces the amount of ultraviolet light radiating form the Sun so colder temperatures on Earth. Read more about the sleepy Sun in this article from the BBC.

Have a great week and be sure to check out “Simple Machines” broadcast show, the “Simple Machines” Web show, our “Simple Machines” video short and all the information available at the Science Trek “Simple Machines” website.

January 13, 2014:

Prune Feet

Never be afraid to admit you were wrong. Science is all about trial and error. About a year ago, I reported on a study that proposed a reason why humans get “prune hands” or wrinkly fingers after a long soak. Those researchers thought wrinkly fingers would give you a better grip when your hands were wet.

But a new study couldn't reproduce the first report's results. The second researchers had 40 volunteers grab 52 items. Sometimes the volunteers had dry hands and some times they had “prune hands.” They found that the volunteers with wrinkly fingers weren't able to pick up the objects any faster than the folks with dry hands. So, the mystery continues. Is there an evolutionary reason why we get “prune hands?” Read about the second study here.

Our next new broadcast show airs next week. Check out Simple Machines on Idaho Public Television or watch the live streaming here on the Science Trek website at 2:00 p.m. MT on Tuesday, January 21st. We are also about to tape our Weather show. If you have a question, send it in today! You can submit an email or video question here.

Have a good week!

January 6, 2014:

Here is something I never thought I would write: Boise, Idaho is going to be warmer today than Atlanta, Georgia. Boise's high is predicted to be 34 degrees and Atlanta is expected to be 26 degrees. We can thank the polar vortex for all the cold. What is a polar vortex? One meteorologist describes it as a cold air hurricane. This vortex is a swirling pool of air that has been stuck in Arctic Canada for a long time. That means the air has grown colder and colder. The vortex usually dips into northeastern Canada, but this one is heading across America. This particular polar vortex is worse because of its extreme cold and very strong winds. Fargo, North Dakota will be 32 degrees below zero with a wind chill of 50 or 60 degrees below zero. The cold air will dip as far south as Atlanta, making it colder than my home in Idaho.

Scientists aren't quite certain what caused it to dip so low. It might be because of a build-up of warm air over Greenland or Alaska pushing the vortex down, or it may be due to just the right weather conditions or maybe both. Temperatures are supposed to start warming up in a few days, but officials expect the cold to freeze the Great Lakes and other northern bodies of water. Meteorologist Ryan Maue says that means cold temperatures will last the rest of the winter in those areas.

Now for a warmer science story: dogs align with magnetic fields while pooping. According to an article in the LA Times, biologist Sabine Begall and her colleagues at the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany report dogs can sense the Earth's magnetic field and tend to poop along a north-south magnetic axis. The scientists studied 70 dogs of 37 different breeds as they pooped and urinated. They found that dogs “did their business” along a north-south axis as long as the magnetic field was stable. Solar storms can cause the Earth's magnetic fields to shift and Begall says when that happens, it is harder to see dog-pooping patterns.

Dogs are not the only animals that have this special sense of the Earth's magnetic fields. This sense is called magnetoreception. Birds have it. Bees do too and cows even line up along magnetic fields when they are standing in actual fields. Scientists aren't sure why animals do this. It is just something the scientists say they will continue to study.

Have a good (and warmer) week.

December 30, 2013:

From ancient words spoken today to a Voyager traveling beyond our solar system, 2013 had lots of interesting science stories. So, as promised, here are my favorite science stories of 2013, in no particular order.

10. Coldest Temperature on Earth recorded:

Nasa satellite data revealed that Earth set a new record for coldest temperature recorded in east Antarctica [Credit: Atsuhiro Muto/AP]

You think your weather is cold? Try visiting the newest coldest place on the planet. As reported in the Guardian, a NASA satellite recorded a new lowest temperature on Earth at -135.8°F (-94.7°C). It happened on August 2010 in east Antarctica. We came close again this year with a -135.3°F (93°C) temperature in July. The old record was -128.6°F (-89.2°C) at Vostok, Antarctica. The new location is northeast of Vostok and not far from the South Pole.

While this is a new coldest temperature detected on Earth, it will not be the new "official" record cold. The Guinness Book of World Records requires the temperature to be recorded by a thermometer rather a satellite, so this new record doesn't count. But ice scientists say the new data gives them more information to help them understand the possible range of conditions here on Earth.

9. Listen to your gut:

When making a decision, has anyone ever told you to "listen to your gut"? It is a phrase that means you should act on your feelings or instincts. But scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles now think our guts may really influence the way we think.

Dr. Emeran Mayer, a professor of medicine and psychiatry, thinks the bacteria in our digestive system helps mold our brain structure as we grow and may shape our moods and behavior. Looking at brain scans from 60 volunteers, he compared brain regions of folks with different types of bacteria in their digestive system. He found brain regions differed based on the type of species of bacteria found in the subjects' guts. Now this doesn't mean there is a direct connection between the two things, but it was an important indicator.

Another scientist, Stephen Collins of McMasters University in Hamilton, Ontario, did research that supports the idea that gut bacteria can influence mood and personality. He had bold mice and shy mice. When he put bold mice's bacteria in shy mice's guts, the shy mice became more fearless. When he reversed the experiment and put shy mice's bacteria in bold mice's gut, the bold mice became more anxious. Changing the gut's bacteria changed the chemistry of the mice's brains. If you want to read more, check out this article from NPR.

8. Sleep cleans your brain:

Scientists have a new idea about why we sleep . . . to clean up our brains! Researchers at the University of Rochester did some experiments on mice. They found that cerebral spinal fluid, the liquid found in the brain, is pumped around the brain while we sleep and acts like a "biological dishwasher."

As part of their day-to-day operations, brain cell produce waste products. Scientists think some of these waste products are toxic proteins that can build up and damage the brain and lead to a condition know as dementia. But researchers did some experiments on mice and found that brain cells shrank when sleeping, making the space between cells much wider. This made cerebral spinal fluid flow ten times faster around the brain than it does when the mice were awake. It takes a lot of energy to push all the fluid around, so the mice didn't do much of it when they were awake. But when they were asleep, the cerebral spinal fluid flowed freely. Researcher Maiken Nedergaard said it was kind of like having a house party. "You can either entertain the guests (do all the thinking you do during the day) or you can clean up the house (wash out the cells), but you can't do both."

Eventually those brain waste products are swept out of the brain and make their way to the liver where they are broken down and removed by the body in your poop and urine. Now, is this the only reason for sleep? Scientists aren't sure. Many think there are lots of other good reasons for sleep. They all do agree that we need to get enough sleep to stay healthy. Read more about the study in this article from the Guardian.

7. Really, really meatless burger:

Lab-grown meat | photo: david parry / PA wire

We already have meatless burgers made from grains, but how about a "cow-friendly" meat burger? Scientists have unveiled the first lab-grown burger. Researchers took cells from a cow and grew them into strips and then combined the strips into a patty.

Professor Mark Post of Maastrict University and his team said the "burger" was made up of tens of billions of lab-grown cells. Researchers are developing lab-grown meat as a way to someday help feed people who don't have easy access to meat and as a way to produce meat in a way that is easier on the environment and on animals.

And how does a lab-grown burger taste? Food writers said it felt like meat but because there is no fat, it didn't quite have the right taste. More salt and pepper maybe? Read more about it in this BBC article.

6. New old carnivore discovered:

Sometimes scientists "discover" things that have been around for a long time. A team from the Smithsonian Institute announced that they have discovered a new species of carnivore (meat eater). The olinguito is the smallest member of the raccoon family. It lives in the cloud forests of the northern Andes in Ecuador and Colombia. It eats fruit and insects and spends its time in tress. It is about 14 inches long, weighs about two pounds and has a 13-17 inch tail.

How did they find the olinguito? Zoologist Kristofer Heigen was looking at some bones and animal skins at a museum in Chicago. He didn't recognize the anatomy and thought it might be a new species. The National Museum of Natural History houses more than 600,000 specimens, many of which are packed in flat trays and had been collected years ago. Heigen did some DNA tests on the bones and found that indeed it was a new species. The next question was were there any of these animals still alive? They looked in the cloud forests and sure enough, there they were. The scientists think that some zoos in between 1967 and 1976 actually had an olinguito on display. The zookeepers thought it was an olinga, a close relative, and the people couldn't understand why it wouldn't breed.

Find out more about this new creature and the story of its "discovery" in this article from the BBC.

5. Solving a pruney mystery:

This bit of science news caught my eye and it answers one of life's biggest mysteries: Why do your fingers and toes get pruney in water?

Feet wrinkled in the water

I always thought it was because the skin absorbed a lot of water and kind of puckered up, but apparently, that's not the reason. In the journal Biology Letters, researcher Tom Smulders reports that pruney fingers and toes are the result of the body's nervous system constricting blood vessels below the skin. Now why would our body do that? Well, scientists have learned that pruney fingers and toes grip wet surfaces better.

They had 20 volunteers pick up wet marble and small lead weights of different sizes. The volunteers either tried with dry hands or with hands that had been soaking in warm water for 30 minutes. The scientist found the folks with wet, wrinkly fingers picked up wet items 12 percent faster than those with dry hands. Smulders compares the effect to the treads on car tires. Good treads help your car's tires better connect to the road just as wrinkles on your fingers help you better grip wet marbles.

That begs a third question . . . why would our bodies adapt like this? Smulders thinks it may have once been a way for our ancient ancestors to get a better footing in the rain. You can read more about it in this Livescience article.

4. Really, really old words:

You use something every day that is probably at least 15,000 years old. Can you guess what it might be? How about a word? Researchers at the University of Reading in England say they have identified words they think date back 150 centuries.

Linguists, scientists who study language, used to think that words didn't survive more then 8,000 years. They believe that other languages force ancient words into extinction. But Mark Pagle, an evolutionary theorist, reports in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that he and his team of scientists have identified a list of about two-dozen words that they think hunter-gatherers in Asia spoke 15,000 years ago. They call them "ultraconserved" words.

How did they decide what was an ancient "ultraconserved" word? Researchers started with 200 words that were known to be "core vocabulary," words found in all known languages. The researchers then studied "cognates," words that sound similar and have the same meaning even though they come from different languages. By the way, the 700 or so languages spoken in the world are grouped into families based on from where they come and how they evolved. So after doing all that work, the researchers found 23 words that are "cognates" in four or more language families.

Here is their list of "ultraconserved" words:

Thou, I, not, that, we, to give, who, this, what, man/male, Ye, old, mother, to hear, hand, fire, to pull, black, to flow, bark (like the stuff on trees), ashes, to spit, worm.

The researchers think that if these words survived for all this time that there must have been a language that was the common ancestor to the all the languages we humans speak today. That's going to be an interesting language to discover!

If you want to read more about "ultraconserved" words, check out this article in the Washington Post or the original article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

3. Global Climate Change:

I can't say this is a favorite story, but it is an important one. I didn't actually write a blog on this issue, but I thought it was important to include it in this year's list.

The Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had some pretty scary findings (Read about them in this BBC news story). Scientists found increasing evidence that ice sheets are losing mass, that glaciers are shrinking, that Arctic sea ice and global snow cover is decreasing, and permafrost is thawing in the Northern Hemisphere. The average concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide hit 400 parts per million in Mauna Loa, Hawaii, in May. Researchers say levels like that haven't been seen in about 3 million years. The scientists believe that humans are responsible for at least half the increases in global average temperatures seen since the 1950s. The question is what to do to and to do it soon!

2. Life on Mars:

Was there life on Mars? The Mars rover Opportunity may have found some evidence that suggests the answer could be yes. Opportunity spotted clay minerals in some very special rock. After testing the rock, scientists say that about a billion years ago, the area probably had water flowing through it.

Remnants of Ancient Streambed on Mars

Opportunity has found areas where water has flown before. Why is this one so special? Well, scientist found that the PH level of this water was neutral. Drinking water's PH is pretty neutral. Life can't exist in areas where the water is too basic or too acidic. With the discovery of this type of water, Steve Squyres of Cornell University says, "The fundamental conditions that we believe to be necessary for life were met here." So, Opportunity found evidence that ancient Mars may have been habitable. If you want to learn more about Opportunity's latest discovery, check out this article on Space.com.

1. Beyond our solar system:

When scientists first watched the launches of Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 in 1977, they were not sure either probe would survive to reach interstellar space. Thirty-six years later, Stone announced that Voyager 1 had become the first human-made object to pass beyond the heliosphere. The heliosphere is the giant invisible bubble inflated by subatomic particles from the sun. Based on measurements from the probe's instruments, Voyager entered into space beyond our solar system in August 2012. It just took scientists until this year to confirm the crossing. Read more about some of the interesting particles Voyager is finding in its journey in this article from Science News.

That's my list for 2013. Keep reading my blog for all the science news for kids in 2014. Have a great week and a very Happy New Year!

December 23, 2013:

Leafcutter ant Acromyrmex octospinosus on a stick carrying a leaf [Credit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Acromyrmex_octospinosus.jpg]

Okay, I confess. I am a bit of a clean freak, but I am a slob compared to Brazilian leaf-cutting ants. Scientists from the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom report that these ants keep themselves clean by regularly bathing in antimicrobial secretions that come from glands in their butts. These ants also sanitize their young and scrub their broods and nesting materials using these same secretions.

Researcher Christopher Tranter and his colleagues took two groups of Brazilian leaf-cutter ants. With one group, the scientists sealed off the antimicrobial glands and left the other group alone. They placed the ants with broods for about two weeks. They also placed a set of sealed and nonsealed ants in brood-free nesting materials and then measured the fungal growth in the materials after two weeks.

They found that the baby ants raised by the nonsealed adults survived better than did those raised by the sealed ants. They also found that there was more fungal growth in the nesting material in the sealed ants than in the nonsealed ants. The antimicrobial secretions played a difference in maintaining a healthy environment.

So, two thoughts: One, the ants show us why it is important to keep your room cleaned; and two, be glad you don't have to be cleaned the way the ants are cleaned. You can read about the ant study in this LiveScience article.

Did you enjoy the shortest day of the year? The Winter Solstice occurred on December 21st. That's the day the Earth's north pole tilts the farthest away from the sun, giving us the shortest day and longest night of the year. From now on, the days will start to lengthen a little bit each day until we get to the Summer Solstice on June 21st, the longest day and shortest night of the year. If it doesn't seem like the days are getting longer, that may be because the Earth reaches perihelion a couple of weeks after the winter solstice. Perihelion is the point when the Earth is at its closest point to the sun. This shorter distance from the sun causes Earth to move faster in its orbit, so it takes a few seconds more than 24 hours for the sun to reach the same point in the sky. That means the latest sunrise happens about January 8 in our part of the world. Why is it so still so cold if we are closer to the sun? Remember, the northern hemisphere is tilted away from the sun this time of year. That is what gives us winter. Read more about this in an article from the Washington Post.

Norad Tracks Santa Logo

The NORAD website tracking Santa's flight is up. Check it out at this festive NORAD page.

Next week, my blog will be about the best science stories of 2013. Until then, have a Merry Christmas!

December 16, 2013:

Nasa satellite data revealed that Earth set a new record for coldest temperature recorded in east Antarctica [Credit: Atsuhiro Muto/AP]

You think your weather is cold? Try visiting the newest coldest place on the planet. As reported in the Guardian, a NASA satellite recorded a new lowest temperature on Earth at -135.8°F (-94.7°C). It happened on August 2010 in east Antarctica. We came close again this year with a -135.3°F (93°C) temperature in July. The old record was -128.6°F (-89.2°C) at Vostok, Antarctica. The new location is northeast of Vostok and not far from the South Pole.

So what is it like at this temperature? Scientists who did the analysis said a human can survive outside for about three minutes at -100°F. The new record is almost 36° colder! Another pointed out that these new record cold temperatures are colder than dry ice. A National Snow and Ice Data Center scientist said, “If you took your glove off, you hand would freeze off very fast.”

While this is a new coldest temperature detected on Earth, it will not be the new “official” record cold. The Guinness Book of World Records requires the temperature to be recorded by a thermometer rather a satellite, so this new record doesn't count. But ice scientists say the new data gives them more information to help them understand the possible range of conditions here on Earth.

Muscles of the body

Our newest broadcast show airs Tuesday, December 17th at 2:00/1:00 p.m. MT/PT. We will be answering your questions about muscles and the muscular system. You can watch it on Idaho Public Television or here on the website. And save time for the new Muscles Web Show too!

Have a great week!

December 9, 2013:

The U.S. government dropped 2,000 dead mice attached to tiny cardboard parachutes into Guam. Now that you have that picture in your mind, try to guess why they did it.

A helicopter deploys acetaminophen-treated dead mouse baits in Guam [Credit: USDA/APHIS]

Scientists are trying to eliminate invasive brown tree snakes. These snakes first came to Guam in the 1940s or 1050s and been causing big problems. The snakes eat native birds and lizards and have caused some species to go extinct. The snakes also get into electric substations, triggering power outages.

So the U.S. Department of Agriculture decided to drop dead mice loaded with painkillers for the snakes to eat. The amount of painkiller in the dead mice is enough to kill the snakes but not enough to kill other animals that might eat the carcass. Oh, what we do in the name of science! You can read more about the dead mice drop in this LiveScience article.

Speaking of science, I am crazy about it and I am not alone. "Science" was named the word of the year by Merriam-Webster.

According to an article in the LA Times, Merriam-Webster kept track of how many times someone looks up the definition of a word in its online dictionary. Based on 100 million lookups, "science" showed the highest increase compared to last year, up 176%. That made it the word of the year. Way to go "science"! And just in case you don't know, the definition of "science" is: "the knowledge about or study of the natural world based on facts learned through experiments and observation." And what was the second most looked up word? It was "cognitive," or "of, relating to, or involving conscious mental activities (such as thinking, understanding, learning, and remembering)." So think about that!

We are working on our next broadcast show. Tune in next Tuesday, December 17th to learn more about muscles. You can watch it on Idaho Public Television at 2:00/1:00 p.m MT/PT or here on the Science Trek website. Be sure to tune in. We are also looking for questions for our Simple Machines show. Send them in now!

Have a good week! Stay warm!

December 2, 2013:

When making a decision, has anyone ever told you to "listen to your gut"? It is a phrase that means you should act on your feelings or instincts. But scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles now think our guts may really influence the way we think.

Dr. Emeran Mayer, a professor of medicine and psychiatry, thinks the bacteria in our digestive system helps mold our brain structure as we grow and may shape our moods and behavior. Looking at brain scans from 60 volunteers, he compared brain regions of folks with different types of bacteria in their digestive system. He found brain regions differed based on the type of species of bacteria found in the subjects' guts. Now this doesn't mean there is a direct connection between the two things, but it was an important indicator.

Another scientist, Stephen Collins of McMasters University in Hamilton, Ontario, did research that supports the idea that gut bacteria can influence mood and personality. He had bold mice and shy mice. When he put bold mice's bacteria in shy mice's guts, the shy mice became more fearless. When he reversed the experiment and put shy mice's bacteria in bold mice's gut, the bold mice became more anxious. Changing the gut's bacteria changed the chemistry of the mices' brains.

While this research is new, it is leading to some interesting hope for people with autism and some mental illnesses. So, if you are feeling anxious, consider eating some yogurt. That's one good way to get good probiotics or bacteria into your gut. If you want to read more, check out this article from NPR.

Two updates for you. Last week, I wrote about a study that showed that male fruit flies were less aggressive when they were exposed to female fruit flies. A study this week suggests that male fruit flies exposed to female fruit flies don't live as long. Apparently being around all those female pheromones causes male fruit flies to age faster. On the upside, if the male fruit flies had a chance to mate, their health improved. If not, then the negative effects on their health continued. Read more about this new study in this EurekAlert article.

Joan waving to Cassini probe

My other update is from a story a long time ago. Several months ago, NASA invited people to wave at the planet Saturn. Saturn was going to be between the sun and the Cassini probe and it was a great time to take a picture. The Earth would be in view as well. So I sent my picture waving at Saturn.


Now NASA has released a composite picture of all the folks who sent in a picture of their wave and recreated a mosaic picture like the original picture of Saturn taken by Cassini. See if you can find me waving! Read more about it here.

Have a great week.


November 25, 2013:

Saying Brain, from around the world

Happy Thanksgiving! Happy Hanukah! Lots to celebrate this week.

I have three quick science stories to share. The first two have to do with your brain.

There are great reasons to learn more than one language. You understand more about the world. You make connections and, according to a new study out of India, you help protect your brain.

Scientists at a hospital studied 648 patients in their memory clinic. 391 of them were bilingual, that is, they spoke more than one language. Not all of the bilingual patients could read and write, but they all spoke at least two languages. The study showed that bilingual patients suffered from a disease called dementia onset 4.5 years later than patients who only spoke a single language. So knowing a second language helped protect patients' brains for almost five years. The delaying benefits of knowing a second language applied to people who suffer from Alzheimer's and other similar dementia diseases. The best time to learn another language is when you are young, so start now, but starting at any age is a good thing for your brain.

Something else good for your brain: exercise. Researchers from the University of British Columbia report that physical activity helps rats do better on memory tests. Rats that ran on a treadmill for at least four months had more blood vessels and white matter in their brains than did sedentary rats. The active rats improved their mobility and had higher levels of dopamine, a brain chemical important for movement.

So get out and exercise and study another language. Do it for a better brain. You can read about these two studies in these articles from NPR: The brain and bilingualism and Sweat your way to a better brain.

My final story has to do with males and females . . . male and female fruit flies. It seems female fruit flies have a secret power. Female fruit flies keep male fruit flies calm. University of California professor Yuh Nung Jan and his team discovered that fruit flies behaved differently depending upon their company. Two male fruit flies in a cage together will start acting aggressively toward each other. They will head butt each other or toss one another around. But the researchers found that male fruit flies that had spent time with a female fruit fly the day before were much less likely to fight.

It apparently has to do with chemistry. Males and females send out chemicals called pheromones. Like fruit flies, we humans also unconsciously detect these chemicals and we react in response.

The scientists found that a pheromone-sensing structure on a male fruit fly's leg bristles when it picks up a communication pheromone signal from the female fruit fly. The researchers found the part of the fruit fly's brain that receives these chemical signals. They discovered the signal activates a group of neurons in the brain that dampens aggression. So having some female company keeps the males from fighting.

Do you suppose the same thing happens when brothers and sisters get together for a big family celebration? Something for science to study. If you want to learn more about the fruit fly report, check out this article from livescience.

Have a great holiday week.

November 18, 2013:

Deciduous trees in a park

We are all about trees this week. Our new show, “Trees,” airs Tuesday, November 19th at 2:00/1:00 p.m. MT/PT. The broadcast show and the Web Show will go live here on the site at the same time. Check it out.

Speaking of trees, Google Earth has released a new interactive online tool which tracks changes in the world's tree canopies from 2000 to 2012. The tool was built from 650,000 images taken by the satellite Landsat 7.

Over those years, the Earth lost 2.3 million square kilometers of tree cover. If you combined all those lost forests, you would have a forest the size of Mongolia or six times the size of the United Kingdom. Most of the loss was due to logging, fire, disease or storms.

On the positive side, the Earth gained about 800,000 square kilometers of forest-land over those same 12 years. Brazil showed the best improvement, cutting annual forest loss in half between 2003-2004 and 2010-2011. Indonesia has the largest amount of deforestation, doubling its annual loss in 2011-2012. Researchers say overall tropical forest loss is increasing by about 2,100 square kilometers per year.

How about here in America? The maps show a “disturbance rate” in the southeastern forests was four times that of South American rainforests. That means more then 31% of the forest cover in that region was lost or re-grown.

Climate change scientists are excited to have this new tool. It can help them monitor the impacts of deforestation and make sure forest management programs are effective. You can read more about the new tool in this BBC news story.

Be sure to watch our new “Trees” show, Web show and video short and check out the “Trees” website. Have a good week.

November 11, 2013:

A close-up view of a reindeer in the Arctic. |Credit: © Kia Hansen

I have blue eyes. They stay that color year-round and life-long. But if I were a reindeer, that wouldn't be true. Scientists have discovered that reindeer change the color of their eyes from gold in the summer to blue in the winter.

Neuroscientist Glen Jeffery from the University College London was looking at a collection of reindeer eyeballs. He found a reflective layer behind the retina of reindeer's eyes. There are fibers in that reflective layer. Reindeers apparently can increase the pressure inside the eyeball during the winter and that compresses these fibers together. Reducing the space between these fibers makes the eyes reflect a bluer light. In the summer, when there is lots of sunlight, the reindeer's eyes turn golden and reflect a lot light through the retina. In the winter, when there is hardly any sunlight, reindeer's eyes turn blue to capture more light inside the eye and help the reindeer see in the Arctic's winter darkness.

So far, reindeer are the only mammals that can change their eye color. But now that scientists know what to look for, they are peering into the eyes of other Arctic animals to see if their eyes might change color too. If you want to learn more about the eye, check out our eye site. If you want to learn more about light and color, check out this light and color video short. You can read more about the reindeer eye color study in this article from LiveScience.

This has nothing to do with eyes, but I thought it was fun. November 12th is a special day. Can you guess why? It will be 11-12-13. Apparently, there are lots of wedding scheduled on the 12th so people will have an easy time remembering their anniversary. I think it is also a good excuse to celebrate. After all, we only get one more of these funky sequential dates in this century. After December 13, 2014 (12-13-14), we will all have to wait almost a hundred years for another such combination.

We are working on our Tree show. Be sure to tune in on November 19th to watch. If you have a question for one of our upcoming shows, send it in. We are taking Muscle questions until the 15th.

Have a good week!

November 4, 2013:

Dogs in a field | http://www.eurekalert.org/multimedia/pub/63717.php?from=252315

Do you know your left from your right? Your dog does. Scientists now think that dogs recognize a left-sided wag from a right-sided wag and that the direction dogs' tails wag is an indication of their feelings.

An Italian research team found that dogs wag their tails to the right when they feel positive emotion and to the left when they feel negative emotions. Researchers showed dogs videos of other dogs wagging their tails. When the dogs saw another dog wagging its tail to the left, the viewing dogs' heart rates went up and they looked anxious. When they saw another dog wagging its tail to the right, the viewing dogs stayed relaxed.

The scientists don't think dogs do the left or right wagging tail on purpose. They think it has to do with how dogs' brains are wired. Dogs, like people, have what's called “asymmetrically organized brains.” That means the left side of the brain controls the right side of the body and right side of the brain controls the left side of the body. Researchers think the direction of the dog's wag is sort of hardwired by the brain rather than the dog making a decision to wag one way or the other.

This can be useful information. Next time you see a dog, look at the direction of the wag. It could give you a good idea how the dog is feeling. Read more about it in this article from Eurekalert.

Have a good, right-tail wagging week.

October 28, 2013:

Girls playing Soccer | Photo By: http://www.flickr.com/photos/evoo73/
Like science? Like soccer or other sports? Go for it! Girls who were more physically active at 11 did better in science as teenagers. A British study, called the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, shows that the more active an 11-year-old is, boy or girl, the better he or she did on standardized math, science and English tests. The same study also found that physically active girls were better at science than their peers. That good result held when the children took tests at 13 and 16 years-of-age. This is an on-going study looking at almost 5,000 children since 1991. You can read more about it in this article from NPR.

The researchers also found that few children were getting the recommended 60 minutes a day of moderate to vigorous exercise. The boys got an average of 28 minutes a day and the girls got just an average of 18 minutes. The scientists don't know why more exercise improves grades, especially for girls and science, but the exercise-good brain connection isn't just true for kids. Studies have shown that exercise improves brain function in older people too. So, put down the electronic tablet, turn off the TV and computer, and go outside and exercise — and take your parents with you! It's great for the whole family.

We are starting editing our November Trees show. That means we are looking for questions for December's “Muscles” show. Send in your questions now!

Have a good week!

October 22, 2013:

An Alarm Clock

Scientists have a new idea about why we sleep . . . to clean up our brains! Researchers at the University of Rochester did some experiments on mice. They found that cerebral spinal fluid, the liquid found in the brain, is pumped around the brain while we sleep and acts like a “biological dishwasher.”

As part of their day-to-day operations, brain cell produce waste products. Scientists think some of these waste products are toxic proteins that can build up and damage the brain and lead to a condition know as dementia. But researchers did some experiments on mice and found that brain cells shrank when sleeping, making the space between cells much wider. This made cerebral spinal fluid flow ten times faster around the brain than it does when the mice were awake. It takes a lot of energy to push all the fluid around, so the mice didn't do much of it when they were awake. But when they were asleep, the cerebral spinal fluid flowed freely. Researcher Maiken Nedergaard said it was kind of like having a house party. “You can either entertain the guests (do all the thinking you do during the day) or you can clean up the house (wash out the cells), but you can't do both.”

Eventually those brain waste products are swept out of the brain and make their way to the liver where they are broken down and removed by the body in your poop and urine.

Now, is this the only reason for sleep? Scientists aren't sure. Many think there are lots of other good reasons for sleep. They all do agree that we need to get enough sleep to stay healthy. So this is another good reason to stick to your bedtime tonight! Read more about the study in this article from the Guardian.

The Bunny, Winslo

I have some sad news to report. If you have been a long time viewer of Science Trek and D4K before that, you may have seen my pet rabbit Winslo. He joined me on the set for my 10th anniversary special and was “the bad bunny” in the video short we did for the CSI show. Winslo passed away this past weekend. He was a wonderful pet and I and my whole family will miss him. You can watch Winslo in action at the end of this CSI video. Click on the video short.

Have a good week. Think good thoughts of Winslo.

October 14, 2013:

Girl Sleeping in a Chair

Benjamin Franklin wrote, “Early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.” Science tells us that a consistent bedtime makes a kid behave better.

Researchers in England looked at data from a long-term study of more than 10,000 children. Their parents filled out surveys when the kids were 3, 5 and 7. Included in the survey were questions about bedtime and behavior.They found that kids with a regular bedtime (every night, not just school nights) had fewer behavioral issues than kids with irregular bedtimes. And kids who had late bedtimes behaved the worst.

Kids this age need 10 to 12 hours of sleep and doctors say sleep-deprived kids don't say they are tired. They act out. So, you kids might not like a more regular and perhaps earlier bedtime than you are getting now, but you will be healthier and everyone will be happier if you get a consistent night's sleep. Read more about it and sleeping tips in the LiveScience article.

Check out our newest broadcast show! Science Trek: “Salmon” airs on Idaho Public Television on October 15th at 2:00 p.m. MT, and you can find it on the Salmon website. Be sure to watch the Science Trek: “The Web Show” too!

We are now taking muscle questions, but if you have a tree question, I can still slip it in. Send a question on any of our active topics today!

Have a great week!

October 7, 2013:

Girl Reading a book

Want to understand others better? Increase your emotional intelligence? Science has a suggestion. Try reading a really good book.

Okay, first a couple of definitions. Literary novels like War and Peace are complex works that make you think. “Popular” novels tend to have more consistent characters and predictable settings. Empathy means the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Okay, back to the science.

Scientists at New York's New School for Social Research divided volunteers into four groups. One group read literary fiction. One group read best-selling novels. Once group read Smithsonian magazine and one group read nothing at all. The volunteers then took a computerized empathy test. They found that “reading literary fiction temporarily enhances your Theory of Mind.” In other words, reading a really good back improves your empathy. They believe having to really think about how the characters in a book are feeling may help you better judge how real people are feeling. The scientists think the way to improve your empathetic skills isn't limited to just reading good books. Seeing complex plays, studying great art may also help you be a better person. Give it a try! Read more about it in this article. (though reading the article will not make you more empathetic!)

Our newest broadcast show airs next week. Learn more about salmon. Tune in on Tuesday, October 15 at 2:00/1:00 p.m. MT/PT on Idaho Public Television or here on the Science Trek website.

Have a great week!

September 30, 2013:

Alston's Singing Mouse

La-la-la-la-la-la-la. Vocalists will sing or trill the scales to warm up their voices, but they are not the only ones that trill. Two species of tawny brown mice “sing” too. Researchers from the University of Texas at Austin have found that the Alston's singing mouse and the Chiriqui singing mouse trill to set their territory. When the smaller Alston mouse hears the song of the larger Chiriqui mouse, it steers clear.

Bret Pash, from the Department of Integrative Biology wrote a paper about the mice for the journal The American Naturalist. He says the mice songs are a series of rapidly repeated notes. He says, “The notes are produced each time an animal opens and closes its tiny mouth, roughly 15 times per second.” Because the animals live in the same areas of the mountain cloud forests of Costa Rica and Panama, they can have overlapping territories. The mice sing to protect their turf and let others know to stay away. Many small rodents make sounds, many too high pitched for human ears. Scientists study the genes from singing mice to better understand the genes that lead to language in humans. You can read more singing mice and watch a video of an Alston's singing mouse at this EurekAlert article.

Our deadline for Tree questions is this week. If you have a question about Trees, send it in now! Here is the link. Have a great week!

September 23, 2013:

Which is better Bach or Stravinsky? Don’t know? Ask your goldfish.

Goldfish | Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/helgabj/ Helga Birna Jónasdóttir

A new study shows that goldfish can tell the difference between classical music composed by Bach or Stravinsky. Researchers at Keio University first taught a group of fish to nibble on a food-filled ball while Bach music was played. This would teach the fish to associate food and Bach. Then the scientists played Stravinsky and the fish didn’t go for the food. That suggests that the fish could tell the difference between Bach and Stravinsky.

Other animals can tell the difference between types of music. Lead Researcher Kazutaka Shinozuka did similar tests with Java sparrows, pigeons and rats. He says only Java sparrows showed a preference for Bach over the more modern Stavinsky. Why? Well, that is up for debate. Other research has shown that monkeys, cats and dogs react to music that is designed to match their vocal frequencies and heart rate. We humans like sounds in similar frequencies and beats. You can read more about this research in this article from LiveScience.

Our new broadcast show is available for your viewing pleasure. Check it out here. To watch the 30-minute show, click on “The Show.” To watch the less-than-ten-minutes Web Only show, click on “Web Extra” and to watch the video short, click on “Video Short.” They will all show up in our built-in player. To download, right click on your selection and follow the download instructions for your operating system.

We are now asking for questions for out “Trees” show. Send us your email or video questions. You can find out how on our “Submit a Question” page. If your teacher would like to borrow our video camera to record questions, send me an email.

Have a great week!

September 16, 2013:

Cartoon Joan

It’s almost here! The new season of Science Trek starts Tuesday, September 17th! We have a great line up of new shows and lots of great new features on the website. Check it out. We will be answering your questions about Mars. The new show airs on Idaho Public Television at 2:00pm/1:00pm Mt/Pac or you can watch it here on the website. We are so excited! Let us know what you think about the new show and the new website. Send me an email!

It is an exciting week in the heavens too. Voyager 1 has left the solar system. Voyager 1 is a probe launched in 1977. It has traveled about 12 million miles, past of Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune and several moons of those outer planets. Scientists think it went out of our solar system on August 25, 2012. So why did it take more than a year to figure that out? Well, first of all, nothing has ever gone out that far so scientists had to figure it out what it means to be outside the solar system. The edge of the solar system or solar bubble is known as the heliosphere. It is marked by plasma. Plasma is ionized gas and the scientists were looking for a change in plasma levels. They had built computer models and last year they finally started to detect differences. It took them a long time to decide Voyager 1 had finally left. They had to analyze the data and make certain choices. It is pretty amazing that something we humans made is now heading out into the universe beyond our solar system. You can read how they figured it out in this article from NASA.

So what now for Voyager 1? It will continue to travel outward. By 2025, scientist think it will no longer be sending information back to Earth, but it will continue on exploring space.

There are a couple of other astrological things of note coming up. We will have a Harvest Moon on September 19th. The Harvest Moon the name for the full moon nearest the autumnal equinox.

The autumnal equinox hits on September 22nd. The equinox happens twice a year (vernal in the Spring, autumnal in the fall) when the tilt of the Earth’s axis and Earth’s orbit crosses the celestial equator. It means the day and night are equal in length. For us in the northern hemisphere, it means the days are getting shorter as we head into autumn and winter.

Lots going on in the sky, but don’t let that distract you from watching our new show about Mars! It is awesome!

Have a great week!

September 09, 2013:

Teen by D Sharon Pruitt | http://www.flickr.com/photos/pinksherbet/

One more week! The new season of Science Trek starts with our show on Mars. Watch it on Idaho Public Television on Tuesday, September 17th at 2:00/1:00pm Mt/Pac or here on the website. Our new website will also launch soon so stay tuned!!

Hissing snakes and parents swearing are making science news this week. First, a study reported in Developmental Science says babies pay attention when they hear certain sounds that signal danger; "older" sounds not modern ones.

Psychologist Nicole Erlich of the University of Queensland, Australia and her colleagues played sounds for 61 male and female infants sitting in highchairs. A parent was nearby. When the scientists played sounds like snakes hissing, crackling fire or another infant's cries, the babies showed a drop in heart rate and larger numbers of eye blinks, both signs that the infants were paying more attention. The same infants did not show a similar response to sounds of more modern dangers like glass breaking or a siren wailing or to pleasant sounds like music or a baby laughing.

The scientists think tens of thousands of years of evolution have changed babies' brains to key into signs of danger. That may explain why more modern sounds don't get the same reaction. You can read more about these studies in this Science News article.

While babies don't like the hissing of snakes, it seems teens don't like being yelled at. A new study suggests the more teens are yelled at, the worse they behave.

Researcher Ming-Te Want at the University of Pittsburg published his study in the journal Child Development. He and his colleges found that young teens interpret harsh verbal discipline as "indicative of rejection or scorn." The psychologists think teens that have been yelled at may have lowered self-esteem and a negative view of themselves, which may lead to poor behavior. These same teens also had an increased risk of depression. So the more teens were yelled or sworn at, the greater their risk became for behavior problems.

So what should parents do? Psychologists suggest the best form of discipline for teens would be to communicate with them on an equal level and "explaining rationale and worries to them." Read more about the study in this LiveScience article.

My advice for this week: Don't let babies near snakes and don't swear at teenagers. Do watch the upcoming Mars show next week and do check out the new Science Trek website.

September 05, 2013:

Paw in front of face

How close is too close? We all have a comfort zone, an area of separation we need from other people. Someone gets too close and we feel threatened. But scientists really weren't sure how close was too close until now. According to researchers at the University of London, the average person gets nervous if something gets between 20 and 40 centimeters (7 7/8 inches to 15 ¾ inches) from his/her face.

To find out what a human's comfort zone is, researchers Chiara Sambo and Giandomenico Iannetti zapped 15 people on the wrist. That made these test subjects blink. At the same time, the researchers moved that same hand closer and closer to the test subjects' faces. They then measure the amount of blinking. On average, people could get their wrist about 20-40 centimeters away from their face before they started blinking quickly, a sign of a defense reaction. So a jolt 40 centimeters away wasn't a problem, but a jolt 20 centimeters away was a big issue.

The scientists say this is only an average. Some people can stand having something closer to them than others. If you are a more anxious person, your comfort zone is probably a bit wider. Sambo and Iannettis published their findings in the Journal of Neuroscience. You can read more about it on the ScienceNews.org website.

My blog is late this week because I have been out shooting material for an upcoming show. Al, our director, is in the edit bay now working on our September 17th program on Mars. We hope to new Science Trek website will be coming soon too. Keep checking in and watch for new developments. By the way, I am looking for questions about salmon. If you have one, be sure to send it in. Click here for an email form.

Have a great week!

August 26, 2013:

Science Trek Logo

Big news!! We are changing the name of our project. Our new name is Science Trek! We decided to change the name of our series from D4K, or Dialogue for Kids, to Science Trek to give our viewers a better understanding of our goal. In case you don't know what that goal is, it is to introduce science topics to elementary-age schoolchildren; to provide educational materials for teachers and parents; and to inspire students to investigate science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) career potentials.

You may have noticed the difference if you went to the D4K website today. Our new home page is under construction, but you can get to all the D4K material by clicking on the link provided. The new Science Trek site will be viewable on smartphones and tablets as well as your computer. We will have faster navigation to the things you want and the same great, award-winning and kid-approved content. Stay tuned as we finish up and launch the new front page.

As for science news this week, researchers came up with answers to two questions about wildlife: Why do wolves howl? And do mountain sheep with the biggest horns have more offspring or is bigger better?

Let’s talk sheep first. In this case, bigger is not better. According to a report on Science News Weekly’s web site, Researchers at the University of Sheffield in Scotland report in the journal Nature that sheep with a blend of small and big horn-genes have more offspring than the purely big-horned neighbors.

Mountain sheep with big horns do attract more ladies, kind of like male peacocks with the brightest feathers attract more peahens. But scientist Jon Slate found that sheep with a gene blend that can result in smaller horns actually had more offspring. He thinks it may because the big horn sheep spend a lot of time fighting to keep their place, as the head of the herd and may not live as long. So at least as far as these mountain sheep are concerned, it is okay to be smaller.

Why do wolves howl? Wolves howl when a friend or the head of the pack leaves. Friederike Range from the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna, Austria co-authored a study published in Current Biology. He and his team followed a group of captive wolves and watch how they reacted when one wolf was taken out for a walk. Dr. Range said the wolves howled differently based on who was taken from the pack. Wolves’ howls are unique; so one wolf can recognize another wolf's howl. Dr. Range says, "Wolves seem to howl more when higher ranking individuals leave because these individuals play quite important roles in the social lives of wolves." She also found that wolves didn’t howl just when a high-ranking wolf left. Wolves also howled when a close friend left. So why do wolves howl? Wolves howl to keep in touch. Read more about this study in this article from the BBC.

Many more of you are heading back to school this week. I hope you have a great year and come and visit our Science Trek website often.

Have a great week!

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