• ## What Your Bones Have in Common With the Eiffel Tower

To modern eyes, the tower's shape is elegant and graceful, perhaps even timeless. But to contemporary critics it was a monstrosity. The tower represented a new kind of aesthetic, and it took people a while to appreciate this. Eiffel was going after a deeper kind of beauty, a kind that wasn't just skin deep. His notion of beauty had to do with economy and structural efficiency, with achieving the greatest strength with the least possible material. It had to do with seeing pure, efficient, well-engineered structures as works of art.
• ## What Would Happen if the Earth Stopped In Its Orbit?

As we celebrate the Earth completing another lap around the Sun, let's take a moment to imagine what life would be like in a world without years - a world that somehow ceased to orbit its star. Admittedly, it's a strange question, but its's one that I've been obsessively wondering about lately. Not because it's of any particular relevance, but simply because it's amusing (at least to me) and fun to think about.
• ## How Small Biases Lead to a Divided World: An Interactive Exploration of Racial Segregation

By playing around with these squares and triangles, you'll discover how even slight biases towards similarly shaped neighbors can lead to total segregation. It's a tour of the counter-intuitive math of segregation, first spelt out by the Nobel Prize winning game theorist Thomas Schelling.
• ## How to Dance with a Tree: Visualizing Fractals With Dance

Here's a fun project that my friend Upasana and I put together some weekends ago. It's a visual exploration of fractals through dance, a piece of generative art that's part performance and part mathematical exploration. The two ingredients that went into creating this were the Microsoft Kinect sensor, which lets your computer track how your body moves, and Processing, a programming language that lets you create interactive visuals with code. Put the two together, and you can use your body to control virtual shapes and objects.
• ## The Physics of Doing an Ollie on a Skateboard, or, the Science of Why I Can't Skate

Skateboarding is hard. I might not be able to skate to save my life, but I can do a little physics. So here’s a thought - maybe I can use physics to learn how to do an ollie.
• ## Hey There Little Electron, Why Won't You Tell Me Where You Came From?

I want to tell you about one of the most beautiful ideas that I know. It’s a physics experiment, and it’s beautiful because in one elegant stroke, it expands our consciousness, forcing us to realize that objects can behave in ways that are impossible for us to picture (but remarkably, possible for us to calculate). It’s beautiful because it calls into question the bedrock of logic on which we’ve built our understanding of the world. It’s beautiful because it’s deceivingly simple to understand, and yet its consequences are deeply unsettling. And it’s beautiful because I refused to accept it until I ran the experiment for myself, and I distinctly remember watching my worldview shatter as the picture slowly built up on the computer monitor.
• ## How a 19th Century Math Genius Taught Us the Best Way to Hold a Pizza Slice

We’ve all been there. You pick up a slice of pizza and you’re about to take a bite, but it flops over and dangles limply from your fingers instead. The crust isn’t stiff enough to support the weight of the slice. Maybe you should have gone for fewer toppings. But there’s no need to despair, for years of pizza eating experience have taught you how to deal with this situation. Just fold the pizza slice into a U shape (aka the fold hold). This keeps the slice from flopping over, and you can proceed to enjoy your meal. Behind this pizza trick lies a powerful mathematical result about curved surfaces, one that’s so startling that its discoverer, the mathematical genius Carl Friedrich Gauss, named it Theorema Egregium, Latin for excellent or remarkable theorem.
• ## Art of Science Competition Reveals the Hidden Beauty of the Microcosm

My friend and colleague Teresa Riordan invited me to something truly awesome that she has been working hard to put together over the years. Art of Science is an annual art competition at Princeton University, where students, faculty, and alumni submit artistic works created in the process of doing science. I wandered through the exhibit during the opening reception and found it to be a great draw, bringing people together in sharing their excitement about science. It goes beyond the test tubes, graphs, and equations that are the bread and butter of everyday science, and instead showcases science as a vivid, technicolor, human experience.
• ## The Amazing Micro-Engineered, Water-Repelling Surface That Lives Outside My Window

I was heading out from home to get lunch, when I caught a glint of light out of the corner of my eye. I saw what looked like tiny drops of mercury, sitting on the leaves of a plant in my backyard. Huh. Those balls of mercury were really just very reflective drops of water. But something about this plant mesmerized me, and I stopped to take a closer look. The plant, by the way, is a plume poppy (Macleaya cordata). It’s got these lovely fractalesque, large green leaves and is native to China, Japan, and Southeast Asia. Do you notice what struck me as odd about this scene?
• ## Active Learning Leads to Higher Grades and Fewer Failing Students in Science, Math, and Engineering

Think back to when you learned how to ride a bike. You probably didn’t master this skill by listening to a series of riveting lectures on bike riding. Instead, you tried it out for yourself, made mistakes, fell down a few times, picked yourself back up, and tried again. When mastering an activity, there’s no substitute for the interaction and feedback that comes from practice. What if classroom learning was a little more active? Would university instruction be more effective if students spent some of their class time on active forms of learning like activities, discussions, or group work, instead of spending all of their class time listening?
• ## What's the Pressure Inside an Exploding Whale?

I was equal parts grossed out and astonished (ok, maybe a little more grossed out than astonished) when I watched this video of a sperm whale exploding. Warning: this is a video of a sperm whale exploding. Obviously, it's not going to be pretty. And being a physics geek, the first question that popped into my head was, "I wonder how much pressure built up inside that whale for it to explode like that?"
• ## Galileo Got Game: 5 Things You Didn't Know About the Physics of Basketball

In a way, a game like basketball is a physics geek’s delight. It’s a playground where you can apply physics principles to try and get some added insight to the game. You’ve got the interplay of projectile motion and collisions, energy and momentum, and so on. To get you started, here’s a list of five neat pieces of physics that you may not typically think about when watching a game.
• ## What's Making This Strange Chirping Noise? A Frog That Can Survive Being Frozen Alive

I was out on a run when I heard this intriguing sound, a chorus of high-pitched chirping noises. Curious to find out what was making this sound, I strayed off the trail and followed the chirps through a field of reeds. Here’s what I saw (and heard). Hmmm… There wasn’t much I could see, although I could hear a ton of activity. I tried to sneak up to a lone, strident voice from the choir. Many failed attempts later, my legs were covered in scratches from bumbling around in the reeds, but I finally managed to get a glimpse of the creature making this sound.
• ## Voiding the Warranty: Using Microsoft Kinect to Make Your Own Dance Video

I'm trying out a new experiment here, a series of blog posts on weekend hacks and projects, that I'm calling 'voiding the warranty'. The unifying theme is to use things in some way other than their intended purpose. I've always loved tinkering. From childhood on, I've been that kid who loves to take apart the VCR or the cordless phone (on a good day, I could even put them back together again). And so I'm really interested in ways in which we can repurpose existing technology to do new and creative things - things that they weren't necessarily designed to do, but that are fun and inspiring.
• ## How to Toughen Glass by Cracking It: A Lesson From Teeth and Shells

Over the course of your life, each of your teeth will make well over a million bites (or megabites, if you prefer.) The average force imparted by your molars in one of these bites is 720 Newtons (162 lbs), or about the weight of an adult human. That’s a very large number of very powerful impacts, and so you’d imagine that our teeth must be incredibly strong and crack-resistant to withstand such heavy use. And yet enamel - the mineral that coats our teeth - is about as brittle as glass. Chew on that thought for a moment.
• ## The Questions That Computers Can Never Answer

Computers can drive cars, land a rover on Mars, and beat humans at Jeopardy. But do you ever wonder if there’s anything that a computer can never do? Computers are, of course, limited by their hardware. My smartphone can’t double as an electric razor (yet). But that’s a physical limitation, one that we could overcome if we really wanted to. So let me be a little more precise in what I mean. What I’m asking is, are there any questions that a computer can never answer?
• ## The Experiment That Forever Changed How We Think About Reality

The uncertainty principle says that you can’t know certain properties of a quantum system at the same time. For example, you can’t simultaneously know the position of a particle and its momentum. But what does that imply about reality? If we could peer behind the curtains of quantum theory, would we find that objects really do have well defined positions and momentums? Or does the uncertainty principle mean that, at a fundamental level, objects just can’t have a clear position and momentum at the same time. In other words, is the blurriness in our theory or is it in reality itself?
• ## The Fluid Dynamics of Spitting: How Archerfish Use Physics to Hunt With Their Spit

Archerfish are incredible creatures. They lurk under the surface of the water in rivers and seas, waiting for an insect to land on the plants above. Then, suddenly, and with unbelievable accuracy, they squirt out a stream of water that strikes down the insect. The insect falls, and by the time it hits the water, the archerfish is already waiting in place ready to swallow it up. You have to marvel at a creature that excels at what seems like such an improbable hunting strategy - death by water pistol squirt.
• ## A New Kind of Food Science: How IBM Is Using Big Data to Invent Creative Recipes

Computers are constantly getting smarter. But can they ever be creative? A team of IBM researchers believes so. They’ve built a program that uses math, chemistry, and vast quantities of data to churn out new and unusual recipes.
• ## Empirical Zeal has moved to Wired

Hi! I’m incredibly excited to announce that Empirical Zeal has a new home, over on Wired’s all-star Science Blogging Network. Please update your bookmarks and RSS readers to the new location. Thanks for reading Empirical Zeal! I really hope you follow me over to Wired, as I have a lot of exciting things planned for the future. So please stay with me!
• ## In a sperm's journey, physics meets biology and art

I’ve been working on something really exciting, and it’s finally ready to show you. It’s a video brought out in collaboration with TED-Ed. In it, I explain how the world of a sperm is so fundamentally different from the world of sperm whale. I describe a big idea from fluid mechanics called the Reynolds number, and explain why size matters a LOT for a swimmer.
• ## Why do caterpillars swarm? We built a game to find out

In my last post, I broke down the science of why some caterpillars work together and form these strange, writhing formations known as rolling swarms. The caterpillars use their own bodies as a constantly re-assembling and dis-assembling conveyor belt, and by doing this they manage to give themselves a speed boost. Inspired by this notion of co-operating caterpillars, my friend Deepak decided to dig a little deeper, and try to understand why they work together in the first place.
• ## Why are these caterpillars climbing over each other? The surprising science behind the swarm.

Imagine you're deep in the Amazon rainforest, and you come across this.. thing. It's a group of caterpillars, moving in a formation known as a rolling swarm. If you're anything like me, your first reaction might be to KILL IT WITH FIRE. Once this irrational fear subsides, your second reaction might be to understand what these caterpillars are up to. Why are they moving in this strange way?
• ## The physics of that gravity-defying chain of metal beads

Here's a pretty mind blowing video. It was made by Steve Mould, who's a science presenter and comic. I was totally baffled when I first saw that. It's so surprising that many sources covering this video assumed that the beads were actually magnets, presumably because that would make this strange phenomenon easier to swallow. But they aren't magnets - what you're seeing is just a boring old chain of metal beads, the kind that you might have at home hanging from blinds or from ceiling fans. So what's going on in this incredible video? How does a seemingly unremarkable chain of metal beads somehow appear to defy gravity? The physics nerd in me had to find out.
• ## The physics of magnets can model how Supreme Court judges vote

I just read an interesting new physics paper that's posted up on the arxiv. It's called the _Statistical mechanics of the US Supreme Court_, and it attempts to understand how Supreme Court judges influence each other when voting, using techniques from the physics of magnetism. Let's say you looked up the numbers on how each supreme court  judge has voted over a decade. Using this data, can you work out how much the judges influence each other? Are they voting independently, or do the votes of their peers influence their decision?
• ## How not to shoot a monkey: video analysis of a classic physics problem.

I came across a neat video, via Jennifer Ouellette, where a couple of MIT students re-enact a classic physics textbook problem. It’s a problem that I first heard over a decade ago, when I was in high school, and is one of the few physics 101 problems to have earned the distinction of its own wikipedia page. Here's the setup. A monkey hangs from a branch of a tree. A hunter aims their rifle at a monkey. At the very instant the hunter pulls the trigger, the monkey gets startled by the sound, lets go of the branch, and falls from the tree. The question is, will the bullet still hit the monkey? If not, where should the hunter have aimed the gun to hit the monkey?
• ## How much pressure did it take to pop the top off Mexico's Popocatépetl volcano?

On June 17, the Popocatépetl volcano in the state of Puebla in Mexico belched out a pretty impressive looking volcanic plume. Fortunately for us, it was caught on webcam, at a town a safe distance away. So, let’s get our SCIENCE on, and try to dig beneath the surface of this volcanic eruption (figuratively speaking, of course). Here’s my first question –– just how fast is that debris sliding down the volcano?
• ## Solar planes are cool, but they're not the future of flight

Have you heard of the Solar Impulse? It’s a Swiss aircraft that’s powered entirely by solar energy. The ambitious goal of this project is to fly around the world using only solar power. When I first heard about this, I was kind of astonished that this is even possible. Are solar panels really sufficient to power an aircraft? And when can I expect to fly in one? To find out how they managed to pull off this feat, let’s crunch some numbers.
• ## The Universal laws behind growth patterns, or what Tetris can teach us about coffee stains

The morning after a big snowstorm swept through the US northeast, I sat in my car, ready to brave hazardous road conditions and drive to the local coffee shop. My home in New Jersey was outside of the storm’s central path, so instead of piles of snow, we were greeted with a delightful wintry mix of sleet and freezing rain. And sitting in my car, I couldn’t help but be mesmerized by these strange patterns of ice particles forming on my windshield. Here’s what I saw.
• ## In which Minute Physics knocks my blog off the internet, and other self promoting news

Wow. I’m really excited that Henry Reich, who’s behind the absolutely brilliant series of animated physics explainers Minute Physics, included me in his video list of “the most consistently awesome and creative science storytellers, explainers and teachers”. I got a chance to catch up with Henry at Science Online, and it was really great to get his perspective on science communication, on physics explainers, and on the rapidly growing following that his work is amassing.
• ## What the Dalai Lama can teach us about temperatures below absolute zero

There’s been a lot of buzz lately in the science blogosphere about a recent experiment where physicists created a gas of quantum particles with a negative temperature - negative as in, below absolute zero. This is pretty strange, because absolute zero is supposed to be that temperature at which all atomic motion ceases, where atoms that normally jiggle about freeze in their places, and come to a complete standstill. Presumably, this is as cold as cold can be. Can anything possibly be colder than this?
• ## The physics of that 'kickalicious' kick

Last Friday, the New York Times ran a cover page story about Håvard Rugland, a Norwegian man who scored an NFL tryout for the Jets, based on a youtube video called Kickalicious that has picked up nearly 2 million views. In this video, he pulls of a series of very impressive football kicks, with seemingly inhuman accuracy. I decided to try my hand at analyzing this video with physics.
• ## Are mass shootings really random events? A look at the US numbers.

In the wake of the tragic massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, there’s been a lot of discussion about whether mass shootings in the United States are on the rise. Some sources argue that mass shootings are on the rise, while others argue that the rate has stayed more-or-less constant.
• ## What does randomness look like?

On 13 June 1944, a week after the allied invasion of Normandy, a loud buzzing sound rattled through the skies of battle-worn London. The source of the sound was a newly developed German instrument of war, the V-1 flying bomb. A precursor to the cruise missile, the V-1 was a self-propelled flying bomb, guided using gyroscopes, and powered by a simple pulse jet engine that gulped air and ignited fuel 50 times a second. This high frequency pulsing gave the bomb its characteristic sound, earning them the nickname buzzbombs.
• ## What is the true measure of a storm?

As Hurricane Katrina surged towards New Orleans, people faced the unthinkable prospect of abandoning their homes and finding shelter. Worst affected were some of the city’s most vulnerable citizens, the poor and the elderly, parents with young children, people without cars, and people living in flood-prone areas. Among those who stayed back, many were old enough to remember Hurricane Camille, a category 5 storm that devastated the region in 1969. Many homes were spared from flooding then, so it stood to reason that they should hold up to Katrina, also a category 5 storm that was demoted to a category 3 by the time it hit land. Sadly, they were mistaken, as the category rating of the hurricane was not the best measure of the raw destructive power of the storm.
• ## Can we build a more efficient airplane? Not really, says physics.

Boeing recently launched a new line of aircraft, the 787 Dreamliner, that they claim uses 20% less fuel than existing, similarly sized planes. How did they pull off this sizeable bump in fuel efficiency? And can you always build a more fuel-efficient aircraft? Imagine a hypothetical news story, where a rival company came up with a new type of airplane that used half the fuel of its current day counterparts. Should you believe their claim? More generally, do the laws of physics impose any limits on the efficiency of flight? The answer, it turns out, is yes.
• ## Milk, meat and blood: how diet drives natural selection in the Maasai

This post is a little different from the usual fare at this blog, as I am discussing a paper on which I'm a co-author. My collaborators and I just put up a paper in the open-access journal PLOS One. We analyzed genetic data from members of the Maasai tribe in Kenya and detected genes related to lactase persistence and cholesterol regulation that are under positive selection.
• ## Pancakes, served with a side of science

There are few pleasures in life that exceed the simple joy of devouring home-cooked pancakes on a Sunday afternoon. I'm not much of a cook, but brunch is by far my favorite meal. So I decided that it's time to take matters into my own hands, and improve my pancake making skills. Oddly enough, the first job I ever had as a college freshman was as a breakfast chef in my dorm. Back then, I'd make pancakes from a box, using Aunt Jemima's pancake mix. I've since realized that it's not much harder to make pancakes from scratch, and it's a whole lot more gratifying. The quest for the perfect pancake is something of a lifelong journey. But unlike other boring journeys, this one is delicious, and served with syrup. Mmmm.
• ## I'm Top Quark, yo!

I’m thrilled to learn that I won the first prize in the 3QuarksDaily Science Prize, for my post on Crayola-fication of the World –– How we gave colors names, and it messed with our brains.
• ## The 3 Quarks Daily Science Prize Finalists

Wow! I made it to the final round of the 3 Quarks Daily Science Prize. It's an honor to be included among these seriously talented science writers. The final winners will be announced by Sean Carroll in a week.

The blog 3QuarksDaily is holding their annual Science Blogging competition.
• ## The crayola-fication of the world: How we gave colors names, and it messed with our brains (part II)

Lately, I've got colors on the brain. In part I of this post I talked about the common roads that different cultures travel down as they name the colors in their world. And I came across the idea that color names are, in some sense, culturally universal. The way that languages carve up the visual spectrum isn't arbitrary. Different cultures with independent histories often end up with the same colors in their vocabulary. Of course, the word that they use for red might be quite different - red, rouge, laal, whatever. Yet the concept of redness, that vivid region of the visual spectrum that we associate with fire, strawberries, blood or ketchup, is something that most cultures share.
• ## The crayola-fication of the world: How we gave colors names, and it messed with our brains (part I)

In Japan, people often refer to traffic lights as being blue in color. And this is a bit odd, because the traffic signal indicating 'go' in Japan is just as green as it is anywhere else in the world. So why is the color getting lost in translation? This visual conundrum has its roots in the history of language.
• ## The state of Indian rural education 2011

A friend of mine recently pointed me towards an incredible resource. It’s called the Annual Status of Education Report (or ASER, which means impact in Hindi). ASER is an ambitious survey of the state of Indian rural education, conducted yearly since 2005, and their 2011 report came out a few days ago. The level of organization here is truly impressive. It’s the largest survey conducted outside the government, combining the efforts of over 25,000 young volunteers from local organizations. Together, they survey nearly 300,000 households in over 16,000 villages in all states of India, and conduct basic level reading and numeracy tests on over 700,000 children.
• ## Role models can reduce the gender gap: an experiment in rural India

Girls from the Birbhum village district in West Bengal, escaping the summer sun. Image credit: basoo! I’m back at home in India, and visited my local toy store today, looking for a science kit for a wide-eyed young friend. A woman walks in, seeking a toy for a one-year-old child. “A boy, not a girl”, she hastens to add. The shopkeeper smiles, and says that at one year of age there isn’t really a difference. “I know”, replies the woman, “but I don’t want you to pick out a doll.” This is a small example, but I find it sad...
• ## Towards nature's fastest draw

It’s not easy to move fast. I say this not just out of laziness. The fact is, in the animal kingdom, moving quickly comes at a considerable energy expense. It also tends to wear down muscles and joints. So you can be pretty sure that whenever you see an animal that’s clocking in at a record speed, it’s doing so for a very, very good reason. Take the case of the mantis shrimp. These incredible crustaceans come in two varieties: stabbers, and smashers. Sheila Patek is a biologist who studies them for a living. In a fascinating TED talk from...
• ## Woohoo! I made it to Open Lab!

I’m totally floored. Two days ago, I received an email from veteran science writer Jennifer Oullette, informing me that one of my posts had made the cut for Open Lab. This is me when I saw Jennifer’s email in my inbox And this is me after reading it If you’re unfamiliar with Open Lab, it’s an annual print compilation of some of the best science writing on the web. Scientific American books has agreed to publish this edition, and it will hit bookstores sometime next fall. The editors Jennifer Oullette and Bora Zivkovic faced the daunting task of winnowing down 720 submissions...
• ## How a new understanding of itch leads to better pain treatments

[caption id=”attachment_1574” align=”aligncenter” width=”512” caption=”“Happiness is having a scratch for every itch” - Ogden Nash. (Image credit: doug88888)”] [/caption] It begins with an itch. That familiar irritating feeling, swiftly followed by the inevitable scratch. For most of us it ends here, in a fleeting moment of bliss. But then there are those tortured few for whom scratching provides little relief. In 1660, the German physician Samuel Hafenreffer defined an itch as “an unpleasant sensation associated with the desire to scratch.” As an operational definition, it does the job. As far as we know, every animal with a backbone has a scratching...
• ## Bacteria use slingshots to slice through slime

Bacteria have busy social lives. You might get a glimpse of this the next time you take a shower. The slimy discolored patches that form on bath tiles and on the inside of shower curtains are the mega-cities of the bacterial world. If you zoom into these patches of grime, you’ll find bustling microcosms that are teeming with life at a different scale. That we can see these microbial communities with our naked eye is testament to the scale of their achievement. Perhaps the most spectacular examples are the giant mats of bacteria that lend life to the Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone...
• ## What it feels like for a sperm, or how to get around when you are really, really small

We don’t usually learn about the physics of squishy things. Physics textbooks are filled with solid objects such as incompressible blocks, inclined planes and inelastic strings. This is the rigid world that obeys Newton’s laws of motion. Here, squishiness is an exception and drag is routinely ignored. The only elastic object around is a spring, and it is perfectly elastic. It will never bend too far and lose its shape. But any child who has played vigorously with a Slinky has stretched past the limits of this Newtonian world. Mr. Newton’s not going to like that.. Whereas the rigid universe is...
• ## Honeybees have handy knees!

A few days ago, I was walking home and passed by a bush of white flowers in full bloom. They looked pretty spectacular lit by the afternoon sun. On taking a closer look, I realized that what I thought were flowers were actually flower bunches, each of them made up of hundreds of tiny flowers. And on each bunch, there was a single honeybee zipping about from flower to flower. Watching these bees through my camera lens, I could see something quite interesting. As they landed on the flowers, they would kick up grains of pollen that would rise up like dust. And then...
• ## Dissecting the language of the birds, or how to talk to a songbird

The Norse god Odin had two songbirds, named thought and mind, whose daily tweets were the source of his knowledge on our mortal affairs. Young children have an uncanny ability to pick up new languages. Not only do they soak up vocabulary, they also construct new sentences of their own. This ability to use grammar is the essence of language. It’s not enough to know the meanings of words, you also have to understand the structures and rules by which words are put together. The predominant view has been that humans are unique in this ability. But any time that...
• ## Launch speed of the leaping sifaka

Update: Added discussion on launch angle at the end of the post. Edit: The final numbers in this post went through a few rounds of revision. What is the world coming to, when you have to track down missing factors of 2 in your blog posts?! This week, I’m looking at the strategies and mechanisms by which different animals solve the problem of getting around. I started off by writing about how birds and aquatic animals conserve energy on-the-go. This post is another spinoff on the theme of locomotion. Here’s a clip from one of my favorite documentaries, David Attenborough’s Life of...
• ## A revealing photograph

While looking around on Flickr for images for the previous post, I came across this captivating photograph taken by Toni Frissell. More than meets the eye? It’s a gorgeous shot on aesthetic grounds. Perfect lighting and composition, a beautiful subject, and a strikingly dramatic moment. And seen another way, it’s a metaphor for what Empirical Zeal is all about: diving beneath the surface, and looking at things from a different point of view. It turns out that this photograph is a neat illustration of two interesting physical phenomena. Can you guess what they are? And here’s another (admittedly odd) question. Can we use this...
• ## Marine animals save energy by coasting like birds

It feels good to be an animal. Unlike trees that are tethered to the ground, we animals have the incredible ability to travel. And we do so in a variety of ways. Some like to walk, others run. Others get around by swimming or flying. There are climbers, leapers, and hoppers, and others that prefer to roll and tumble. Locomotion certainly affords us a great deal of freedom, but it comes at a considerable energy cost. Through countless generations of incremental evolution, our bodies have arrived at many solutions to balancing our energy budget. Fish have streamlined profiles, birds have hollow bones to...
• ## I made it to the 3QD finals!

I’m very excited to report that my post on blind cavefish made it to the list of finalists for the 3QuarksDaily Science Prize 2011. I’m in the company of some seriously excellent writers, all of whom I admire. A big thanks to everyone who voted me in and helped spread the word about this very young blog. You’re all incredible! Here are the other finalists: Cosmic Variance: The Fine Structure Constant is Probably Constant Dr. Carin Bondar: Sacrifice on the Serengeti Highly Allochthonous: Levees and the Illusion of Flood Control Laelaps: The Pelican’s Beak - Success and Evolutionary Stasis Oh, For the Love of...
• ## Why a quantum particle is not like a water drop. A tale of two slits, part 1

I want to describe a certain beautiful experiment, perhaps the most beautiful experiment in science. This is an experiment that has captivated me from the time that I first heard about it in high school. That’s because it’s simple to understand, and yet it captures the essence of what is truly messed up about quantum mechanics. This is a tale of two slits. And it would be no exaggeration to say that through these slits, we encounter a word that is so strange, it is beyond our human capacity to imagine. The story is about the nature of light and matter....
• ## Dude, what's up with these surfer geese?

A friend of a friend of a friend (all kayakers) was recently out filming his buddies play in a huge wave. By chance, he recorded this incredible video. It shows a gaggle of geese floating down a river that is at its highest flow in 27 years. They start approaching a fairly intimidating wave (a gnarly wave, in the standard paddler’s lexicon). You can hear the wave roaring loudly.. What comes next is utterly surprising. Take a look at the video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xQfSx6zEey0 It looks like a dangerous situation, but these geese appear to be in control. Seemingly effortlessly, they glide over...
• ## Vote for your favorite online science writing

Update: They’ve kept voting open till Friday, June 10. Please vote! Update: Voting closes in one day - on Wednesday, June 8. Please vote! The excellent blog 3quarksdaily has an annual science writing competition, where they reward the best posts on science over the last year. This year, it’s being judged by the particle physicist and cosmologist Lisa Randall. There are lots of great nominations. You can check out the list here. It’s now open to online votes, and the top 20 entries will be passed to the editors for the next round of selection. So, get out there, and...

Smarter than you think.. Sex is war. It’s a battle for limited resources. The source of sexual conflict is this: sperm is a relatively cheap resource for males to produce, whereas producing eggs and rearing offspring is a much larger investment on the part of the female. Darwin was the first to realize the implications of this. He reasoned that this imbalance should result in males competing with each other to fight for the limited resource, and females exerting a strong choice on who to mate with. Taken together, male competition and female choice were the two pillars of the...
• ## Seeking symmetry on a sunday morning (updated)

I spent last Sunday hiking with friends in the Shawangunk Ridge, in New York state. The Gunks, as it is locally known, is a ridge of bedrock that extends from the northernmost tip of New Jersey to the Catskill Mountains in New York. It was an incredibly foggy day, so we didn’t get to see any of the scenic vistas. But we did get to enjoy the weirdly diverse vegetation, all of which was covered in dew. The highlights were hiking through a beautiful ice cave, and having lunch on a ledge overlooking a 180 feet (54.6 m) tall waterfall. That’s...
• ## Why have sex? To fight parasites, of course!

**This post was selected by Vincent Racaniello as an editor’s selection on ResearchBlogging.org **__The (revised) title of this post was suggested by Lucas Brouwers. Check out his excellent blog on evolution, Thoughtomics. New Zealand mud snails, before and after infection by parasites. These tiny creatures may move slowly, but peering beneath the surface reveals an incredible race for survival. Why do we have sex? If this question keeps you up at night, you either have really loud neighbors, or you have the makings of an evolutionary biologist. Some of the most brilliant minds in the field - William Hamilton, John...
• ## Why moths lost their spots, and cats don't like milk. Tales of evolution in our time.

In the children’s game of hide-and-seek, it doesn’t matter much whether you win or lose. In the animal kingdom, however, the stakes are significantly higher. If you’re found, you’re food. And death is not just the end of the individual, it’s the end of a lineage. Organisms that die before they can reproduce deny their genes a road to the next generation. In this simple fact lies the engine of change. For example, genes that make a prey more camouflaged will end up increasing their reproductive success, whereas genes that make them more noticeable are not going to get very...
• ## Destroying the disposers of death: will India rescue its few remaining vultures?

Indians today can hardly recall the last time that they saw a vulture. In the 1990s, these majestic birds were a common sight in the subcontinent, and would show up wherever there was exposed carrion. As a child, I remember marveling at vultures circling at impressive heights, probably looking back down at me with their incredible eyesight, their wings outstretched as they effortlessly hovered on columns of warm air. But since the nineties, their numbers have been falling dramatically in India, Pakistan and Nepal. The scale is astonishing - for every thousand white-rumped vultures in 1990, only one is alive...
• ## When nice guys finish first: a lesson from tiny robots

Meet Alice. She is 4 centimeters tall and moves about on wheels. Her goal in life is to look for food. Remarkably,the foraging behavior of this tiny robot has not been programmed by humans. Instead, her creators gave Alice a brain, and let evolution do the job of programming it. And Alice is going to show us why it is that individuals often make sacrifices for each other. Animals often behave in seemingly selfless ways. The most regimented examples come from the social insects - the ants, termites, wasps and bees. Here selflessness is built in to the fabric of their society, as...
• ## Blind fish in dark caves shed light on the evolution of sleep

An eyeless Mexican cavefish. If you think it looks sleepy, read on. This post has been submitted to the NESCent Evolution Blogging Contest Out of the approximately 3 billion letters of DNA that make up your genome, there are about a 100 letters that neither of your parents possess. These are your own personal mutations. The machinery that copies DNA into new cells is very reliable, but it is not perfect. It makes errors at a rate equivalent to making a single typo for every 100 books filled with text. The sperm and egg cells that fused to form you carried a...
• ## Sylvia's super awesome maker show

I just bought an Arduino, which is a cheap open-source electronics board. You can program it from your computer and build all sort of interesting devices that can respond to their surroundings. It can take as inputs pretty much any kind of electronic sensor you can get your hands on (light, temperature, pressure, sound, force sensors, and countless others) and can use them to drive motors, switch things on and off, make music, run a web server, play pong, and so on. I just started tinkering around with it and it’s incredibly liberating to be able to get a computer to...
• ## When it hurts so bad, why does my brain light up?

If you’ve ever been rejected by a loved one, you knows that it hurts. Think of the language that we use to describe the feeling - hurt, pain, broken hearts, heartache, and so on. Across cultures, many of the same words are used to describe social rejection and bodily pain. Is this all just metaphor, or are people who have been dumped genuinely feeling physical pain? A recent study by Ethan Kross and colleagues set out to address this question by putting volunteers who had recently experienced such intense rejection into brain imaging machines. The principle behind brain imaging is straightforward. As you...
• ## Hollaback to the male humpback whale

There’s something irresistible about pop music. Every few months, a song is born that transcends cultural differences and plants itself into our minds. Many of us manage to resist the allure of pop through indifference or stubborn determination. Among the humpback whales, however, keeping up with the latest musical fads is a matter of survival. Humpback whales use their immense bodies as resonating cavities to produce a truly impressive vocal range. A single male has a range wider than any human choir. They can sing from two octaves lower than a bass singer, to three octaves higher than a soprano. This...
• ## Perfumes, smells and quantum wells

Luca Turin is one of the authors of the paper mentioned in the previous post. He’s quite a colorful character, and his TED talk from 2005 is definitely worth checking out. And, via Sean Carroll, I came across an interesting talk by Seth Lloyd on ‘Quantum Life’. He describes ways in which living things take advantage of quantum mechanics - an idea that would have got you laughed out of the room a few years ago. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wcXSpXyZVuY
• ## Using flies to sniff out a new theory of smell

Our sense of smell is really quite incredible. Every time we take in a breath or taste food, countless molecules swarm into our nasal passages. As they move up the nasal tract, these visitors arrive at a patch of cells on which there are over 10,000 different kinds of docking stations. These cells are odor receptors, and each of them can register a different odor. Together they make up a chemical detector that is much more sensitive and versatile that anything we can come close to building. In a paper published in the journal PNAS in February, the authors demonstrate through a...
• ## Plastic flowerpots and the mighty alphabet of the universe

Take a look at this toy. Depending on where you stand on the aesthetic spectrum you may find it rather tacky, but there’s also something very endearing about it. It is sold on pavements and at traffic lights in metros across India, the latest in a line of quirky street-side toy fads that have in the past included items such as a birdcage shaped head tickler. People have been sufficiently entranced by its charms to make this little flowerpot a mass-produced phenomeon. In Delhi and Bombay it’s ubiquitous - I’ve seen it on office desks, window sills, toilet water tanks, and...