Friday, April 27, 2012

The physics of a philodendrist

 A love of nature led Jed Brody to technology, to try to save nature. Photo by Carol Clark.

How many people do you know who care about the environment so much they don’t drive a car? Meet Jed Brody, an Emory physics senior lecturer who loves trees and let his driver’s license expire when he was 21. Brody, who lives about two miles from campus, gets around Atlanta on foot, bicycle, public transit and through occasional rides from friends. To further reduce his footprint, he keeps his condo at 58 degrees in the winter and does not use air-conditioning.

Brody joined Emory in 2003 and focuses on teaching in the small, but elite, physics department. Two out of the current class of 15 seniors are going on to graduate school at Harvard.

In his spare time, Brody volunteers with Trees Atlanta, reads, and writes fiction. His short story “The Kid Who Ate Paste” placed second in a Creative Loafing writing contest. His science-fiction novel, “The Philodentrist Heresy,” was just published by Moon Willow Press. “Philodentrist” means “tree lover.”

eScienceCommons interviewed Brody in his office.

eScienceCommons: You grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, but I’m guessing it wasn’t a typical suburban childhood.

Jed Brody: My dad had hair down to his shoulders and did Kripalu yoga. Every weekend we went to an ashram where the adults dressed all in white, called each other brother and sister, and crawled on their knees a lot. That seemed normal to me.

eSC: How long have you been writing?

JB: A long time. When I was 10, I wrote a poem called My Perfect World:

Way up on the mountaintop
with all the world below
no factory, no toy, no shop,
just natural things that grow.

eSC: What got you into physics?

JB: In fourth grade, we went on a field trip to a big General Electric plant. During the tour, they showed us these solar panels and talked about the efforts of science to improve energy efficiency. Love of nature led me to technology, to try to save nature.

I went to graduate school in electrical engineering at Georgia Tech, because it had been a world leader in making multi-crystalline silicon solar cells. All my solar cells came out crummy. I don't know why, I just wasn't good at making them. It turns out that ideological drive does not confer technical aptitude. I realized that I'm more of a theorist by nature.

eSC: You served in the Peace Corps in Benin in West Africa. What was that like?
A street scene in Benin.

JB: I taught high school physics and chemistry. I learned a lot, teaching 50 to 60 students in classes that were two to three hours
long. It also helped me overcome my adolescent immortality syndrome. I had diarrhea pretty much every day. It was rare when I didn’t have intestinal pain. The Beninese seemed like happy, healthy people and appeared to be mostly immune to the bugs that I had. Many of them are incredibly buff. They use these giant cement tiles to pave their roads and the laborers would hurl them to each other across 30 feet. Their muscles would be working like pistons.

eSC: You’ve published six papers on teaching in science journals. What are they about?

JB: In the most recent one, for the American Journal of Physics, I developed an experiment and an equation for how water oscillates in a tube. The frequency of oscillation is lowest when the tube is about half-full of water. So you have these beautiful, U-shaped curves. It’s a way to teach a variety of physics concepts, including the basic Newtonian mechanics of oscillating motion.

In a previous paper, I described a novel way to determine atmospheric pressure with a similar apparatus. Unlike a conventional barometer, there’s air, not vacuum, above the fluid in the tube. In a way, I invented a kind of barometer for pedagogy. The idea for it grew out of experiences I had teaching in Benin, when I had to demonstrate complex concepts using local materials.

eSC: You also go to India every summer to teach physics to monks as part of the Emory Tibet Science Initiative. How is that going?

JB: It’s challenging, because the monks don’t have a lot of math, but they are great students. They ask some really outlandish questions. I was talking about the gravitational force between the Earth and the moon and a monk said, “What would happen if the moon was shaped like a cone and not a sphere?” That gave me the chance to talk about how gravitational force depends on the distance between the centers of two masses.

The Dalai Lama says that if the ancient Buddhist scholars were alive today they would study science, because Buddhist philosophy is studying what is reality, as opposed to illusion.

eSC: How do you personally reconcile science and religion?

JB: I’m Daoist. I meditate and do tai chi daily, and I consider myself deeply religious. I believe that spirit permeates everything. So to me, studying the laws of physics is a way of communing with spirit.

eSC: What is your novel, “The Philodendrist Heresy,” about?

JB: It’s about a dystopian underground society, where people have been living so long that they have no knowledge of the surface and things like trees, the moon and the sun. The food is recycled glop that comes out of machines, and everyone experiences gastric pain while eating. The heroine, Danielle Gasket, is trying to reach the surface. She’s racing from one clue to the next while being chased by warring factions that want to kill her. It’s kind of a science fiction version of “The Da Vinci Code.”

I’m donating my royalties from the book to Sustainable Harvest International. It’s a charity involved with restoring forests founded by a fellow Peace Corps member.

eSC: Will you ever break down and get a car?

JB: Last night, I actually had a dream that I found my perfect home, in the middle of a forest. So, who knows, I might have to get a car if I lived there. Meanwhile, I don’t feel the need for one. I don’t really believe in sacrifice. I love the way I live. It’s a celebration of the Earth and all of my values.

Monks + scientists = a new body of thought

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Sprinkle your vocabulary with 'happicles'

From Emory Report

The best way to launch a new word is to pretend that it isn’t new and just start using it, says Mikhail Epstein, an Emory professor of cultural theory and Russian literature.

For example, he describes asking his colleagues out for a bite. “Sometimes they say, ‘I’m busy for lunch, I’m busy for dinner.’ I say, ‘Well, let’s do a dunch together.’ It is intuitively clear to them what it means.”

Epstein recently published “PreDictionary: An Exploration of Blank Spaces in Language.”

“Predictionary means a draft, a germ of a dictionary,” he says. And it refers to a collection of predictions about new words that he hopes will emerge from the book to fill in gaps of meaning.

Happiness, for instance, is such a high-pressure word, referring to a largely unsustainable state.

Epstein gives us “happicle,” or the smallest unit of happiness. “Like photons, happicles have zero mass at rest,” he writes. “They lack the stable inertial mass that we identify with happiness. Happicles flash and go out in passing. They may be as transitory as a fragrance in the air, or a falling leaf, or the glance of a passerby on the street.”

Another gem is “inventure,” which he defines as “an adventure of mind, creative and engaging intellectual action.”

We hope you enjoyed this posticle. May your day be charged with happicles and free of meetniks, people who adore holding meetings that suck the inventure right out of you.


Uncovering secrets of sound symbolism
How we learn language

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Experiment seeks fun people with good chemistry

By Carol Clark

Learning about chemical evolution can be as easy as a walk in the park. In fact, you’re invited to participate in a public science-and-art experiment, “Group Intelligence,” taking place in Atlanta’s Freedom Park this Saturday, April 21 at 2 pm. No experience or special knowledge is needed. If you are between the ages of 10 and 100 and curious about the world, just bring your molecules, and be ready to mix it up. Click here to RSVP.

“Besides learning some basic concepts about molecular assembly and chemical evolution, the idea is to have fun,” says Meisa Salaita, education coordinator for the Center for Chemical Evolution.

Group Intelligence is a collaboration between the Center for Chemical Evolution, funded by NASA and the NSF, Out Of Hand Theater in Atlanta and The Lunatics artistic company in Holland.

“We’re pushing the frontiers of what we know,” says David Lynn, a lead researcher for the Center for Chemical Evolution and chair of chemistry at Emory. “A lot of the concepts we’re grappling with are difficult to grasp. What is life? How did life form on Earth? Are we alone in the universe? As the world and our knowledge changes ever faster, the need to educate people at all levels becomes even more critical and scientists have to play a role in that.”

Lynn is a leader in taking science to art galleries, concert halls and, in the case of Group Intelligence, the streets.

Each performance is as different as the people who show up to participate.

Participants will follow instructions delivered through MP3 players. Everyone will press “play” together and set off on a chaotic journey, mimicking how energy stirs molecules into self-assembly. Along the way, the participants will collect materials to cooperatively build a one-of-a-kind sculpture.

“This is a convergence of science and art, and how they can inspire and influence each other,” says Adam Fristoe, co-artistic director of Out Of Hand Theater. “Working on it has been like a gift for me.”

Group Intelligence debuted last year in Atlanta in more of a flash mob format, and ran for 10 performances at the Oerol Festival in the Netherlands. The Freedom Park event is a test run for a revamped version of the science-and-art experiment, as it heads out on a U.S. tour. It will appear at the Cambridge Science Festival on April 26 and 28, and the International Festival of Arts and Ideas in New Haven, Connecticut on June 23 and 24.

Each performance is as different as the people who show up to participate.

“Molecules behave the way that humans behave,” Fristoe explains. “Diversity in a group is really essential for its survival. Fast and slow, young and old, stronger and weaker, all are equally valuable for groups of people or molecules.”

The organizers are gathering qualitative data about the effectiveness of Group Intelligence by holding focus groups with random participants. A long-range goal of the project is to simplify its execution, and perhaps even develop a turnkey, half-hour curriculum for use by high school biology and chemistry teachers.

“We think ‘Group Intelligence’ can be an effective way to spark strong conceptual conversations about molecular behavior because it’s so experiential and aesthetic,” Fristoe says.

Chemists boldly go in search of 'little green molecules'
Teaching evolution enters new era

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Chemists boldly go in search of 'little green molecules'

Extrasolar planet Upsilon Andromedae d, which lies in the habital zone of the Sun-like star Upsilon Andromedae A. The star, about 40 light years from Earth, is known to host three planets. Artist's hypothetical rendering by Lucianomendez, via Wikipedia Commons.

By Carol Clark

Jay Goodwin recalls the late-night 1969 moon landing vividly. His mother woke him up so he could watch Neil Armstrong step onto the lunar surface.

“It was a big deal. I still remember every detail on TV, and going outside to look up at the moon,” Goodwin says. He is now a chemist at Emory, working in the lab of David Lynn, a lead researcher for the NASA-NSF Center for Chemical Evolution.

Like a lot of kids who grew up in the heyday of the space race, Goodwin once dreamed of becoming an astronaut. Little did he know that as a chemist, he would be helping in the search for life beyond Earth.

At the request of NASA and the NSF, Goodwin and Lynn pulled together an international group of scientists in Washington this month to give their input during a workshop called “Alternative Chemistries of Life: Empirical Approaches.” They are now drafting suggestions to the government agencies for how to hone in on the search for other “Earths,” in light of the extraordinary number of exoplanets that powerful telescopes have unveiled.

“The discovery of exoplanets boosts the fascination of what may be out there,” says Goodwin, who prefers not to use the word “extraterrestrial.”

“We’re not looking for ‘little green men,’” Lynn explains. “We’re looking for ‘little green molecules.’”

In addition to synthesizing the input from the 40 scientists who participated in the workshop to draft the advisory report, Goodwin and Lynn will be among those presenting research at the NASA Astrobiology Conference 2012. Hundreds of scientists are gathering April 16-20 at Georgia Tech under the banner “Exploring Life: Past and Present, Near and Far.”

Galileo shows aristocrats of Venice how to use a telescope in a fresco by Giuseppe Bertini.

For centuries, advances in our understanding of the universe were measured at a glacial pace. From the realization that the Earth is not flat, to the daring proposition that the Sun was the center of our solar system, on up to the Big Bang model, the mysteries slowly unraveled.

Now things have speeded up considerably.

The heady era of manned space exploration may have temporarily plateaued, but powerful space-based telescopes like the one on NASA’s Kepler Mission are rapidly boosting our knowledge. Nearly 800 exoplanets have been discovered, including a handful in the habitable zones around stars, where liquid water is possible. It’s estimated that each of the 100 billion stars in our Milky Way harbor one or more planets, which heightens the possibility that our galaxy could be teeming with life in some form or another.

From Earth, we can observe transits of Mercury and Venus when they pass in front of the Sun. Kepler will observe the same phenomena in order to detect Earth-sized planets that are far beyond our solar system. Credit: Dana Berry, NASA Kepler Mission.

“We are not alone,” Lynn says. “It would be statistically impossible to not have other Earths out there, or rocky planets in habitable zones.”

But subtle factors, such as the tilt of the Earth’s axis and the presence of a moon, may be critical for the organization of life as we know it. So what is life exactly, and how would you know it if you saw it on an alien planet?

The more we learn, the more complex that question becomes.

Lynn’s work for the Center for Chemical Evolution is focused on understanding supramolecular self-assembly, and how life may have originated on prebiotic Earth. Meanwhile, the Human Genome Project is fueling research into the evolution of DNA and ways that man might generate “synthetic life” in a laboratory. And exploration of unique environments is uncovering examples of extremophiles, organisms that thrive in conditions that would be detrimental to most life on Earth.

Thermophiles, a type of extremophile that can exist in scathing heat, produce some of the bright colors of Grand Prismatic Spring, above, in Yellowstone National Park. Credit: Jim Peaco, National Park Service.

For the Washington workshop, Lynn and Goodwin invited a range of leading specialists working at the boundary of non-living and living systems. They included microbiologists, marine biologists, geochemists, synthetic chemists, atmospheric chemists, virologists and others.

“We had some interesting conversations,” Goodwin says. “One evening at dinner, a marine biologist told me how he had dropped a bucket into the water off a dock in Maine and cultured organisms from it that he had never seen before. He pointed out that we barely begun to understand what’s beneath our feet here, so how do we know what to look for out there?”

The word cloud above was created from the workshop notes. Click to enlarge.

During the next few months, Lynn and Goodwin will be continuing those conversations as they work on developing guidelines to set the tone for a whole new era in the exploration for life.

“The main goal of brainstorming at the workshop was to stretch our imaginations,” Goodwin says. “This project gives us all a chance to re-engage in the wonderment we felt as children looking up at the moon.”

Fueling the dream of travel to the stars
Explorer of the 'cool universe'
Peptides may hold 'missing link' to life
2010: A science odyssey

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Social stress molds monkeys' immune systems

If a monkey's social status changes, her immune system changes along with it. Scientists studying rhesus macaques at Emory's Yerkes National Primate Research Center say they can predict a rhesus macaque's rank within a small group by examining gene expression levels in her immune cells.

This finding may have implications for how the stress of low socioeconomic status affects human health and how individuals' bodies adapt after a shift in their social environment. The results are published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Early Edition.

The lead author of the study is Jenny Tung, who is now assistant professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke University.

Primate researchers can tell macaques' social rank by watching them engage in competitive interactions, such as grooming and accessing food and water. Tung and her colleagues studied 10 groups of female macaques (five each) in which researchers could manipulate individuals' social rank. Before being placed into new groups, all of the macaques started out as middle rank.

"In the wild, macaques inherit their social rank from their mothers" Tung says. "But in our research, the order of introduction determines rank; the newcomer is generally lower status. When some macaques' status changed after a newcomer arrived, so did their patterns of immune system gene activity."

Read more.

Monkeys can recognize faces in photos
Chimps, bonobos yield clues to social brain

Monday, April 9, 2012

Popular culture getting in touch with autism

As the rate of autism diagnosis increases, so does the appearance of characters with autistic traits in mainstream movies and books, such as 9-year-old Oskar Schell in “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.” The latest example is “Touch,” a Fox TV series featuring Jake, a non-verbal 10-year-old boy who doesn’t like to be touched. Jake’s father, played by Kiefer Sutherland, struggles to somehow connect with his son, and discovers that his son has special gifts.

Although it’s a dramatized version of life with autism, the series demonstrates the value of embracing a child’s interests, even if they do not involve an extraordinary talent, says Joseph Cubells, director of medical and adult services at the Emory Autism Center.

“The very act of standing back and allowing a child to develop something they enjoy doing, and to simply and quietly take joy in what a child enjoys, can be a profound expression of love and affection,” Cubells says.

Parents of a child who does not even want to make eye contact must be extremely patient and creative to find a way to express their bond, he says.

“Don’t lose faith in your connection to that child because it’s there and it’s real,” Cubells says. “I don’t want this to sound syrupy and sugar coat it, because the fact is, raising a child with autism can be just terribly difficult.”

When a family becomes too focused on trying to force a child to be a certain way, it’s a recipe for disaster, he says, urging parents to try to make it clear that they want to be a part of their child’s world and to find ways to make that world a better place.

“That sense of never giving up hope is a very important thing,” he adds.

Anxious children confuse 'mad' and 'sad'
How non-verbal communication affects development
Prairie voles aid in search for autism treatment

Friday, April 6, 2012

Biology teacher stirs up class with cook-off

Emory biology teacher Jennifer Kovacs wanted to give her beginning students more than just a taste of plant physiology. So she created a Top Chef-style cooking competition. Teams of students had to create a dish from one of two categories: Roots, fruits and shoots or angiosperms and gymnosperms.

“Science is everywhere,” Kovacs says, explaining that she wants her students to think about biology outside of the classroom, and how it applies to their every day lives.

The six judges of the competition, including scientists and Emory’s executive chef, evaluated the entries based on creativity, science explanation, taste and presentation. The prize: 30 bonus points on the final exam.

“I’ve never been presented with an incentive that big to cook,” says student Vijay Balakrishnan, who didn’t win, but learned how to make a fruit flan.

Great teacher thrives in a unique habitat

Thursday, April 5, 2012

New institute taps the power of 'big data'

By Kimber Williams, Emory Report

Quantitative research hasn't traditionally been considered a major facet of a liberal arts education, but times have changed. In a quiet corner of the Emory campus, a bit of scholarly revolution is taking shape.

The new Institute for Quantitative Theory and Methods (QuanTM) is unfolding plans to offer new statistics courses, undergraduate fellowships, workshops, a statistics help desk, a speakers series and, by next summer, a major conference, all focused on the theme of "big data."

There is growing interest in the role of computational, quantitative techniques within the humanities "to explore ideas and understand the dynamics that are shaping the culture," says Robin Forman, dean of Emory College.

QuanTM (pronounced "quantum") is directed by Clifford Carrubba, a political science professor who also directs Emory's Center for the Study of Law, Politics and Economics.

Carrubba cites advances in the digital humanities movement and computational linguistics, which allow scholars to identify literary characteristics — such as sentiment or mood — and write computer programs to study that aspect in hundreds of thousands of books.

"I can imagine having undergraduate humanities majors, social and natural scientists in the same class using the same skill set for very different purposes — an English major may be using the same skills that a biologist uses," Carrubba observes.

Read the full story in Emory Report.

Census data center: 'A nerd's trip to Nirvana'

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Census data center: 'A nerd's trip to Nirvana'

By Kimber Williams, Emory Report

Erik Nesson, an Emory doctoral candidate in health economics, was seeking detailed data for his dissertation into how both heavy and light smokers respond to tobacco control policies.

Turns out, his timing couldn't have been better.

The Atlanta Census Research Data Center (ACRDC) opened last fall within a secure computer room at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta to provide restricted data for social, economic and health research.

Now, Nesson joins the first wave of Emory researchers to be granted a rare opportunity — the chance to study a virtual smorgasbord of government microdata not readily available to the general public.

From economic, business, trade and labor data to household and crime surveys, health statistics and manufacturing reports, the available material "goes far beyond what you would immediately associate with census data," says Nesson, who describes working at the center as "a nerd's trip to Nirvana."

Sifting through national health data, Nesson found that light smokers weren't really changing their behaviors, but heavy smokers were — reducing the number of cigarettes they smoked, but also inhaling more intensely and switching brands, so the level of nicotine in their systems never really changed.

Access to restricted data, he says, made all the difference.

"It's a huge competitive advantage," Nesson explains. "It's hard enough to think of ideas for dissertations, things no one has done before or ways to improve on what people have done before. The ridiculous amount of data they have [at the ACRDC] will be a great recruiting tool for people interested in really any field."

Research trips to the next closest centers — in North Carolina or Maryland — would cost both time away from the classroom and travel funds, says David Frisvold, assistant professor of economics at Emory, who is working with the ACRDC for research into soft drink taxes and childhood obesity.

Although the data Frisvold needs are available elsewhere, he has had to pay steep fees to access what he can now examine at the ACRDC at no cost. "It makes a big difference," he says.

Data at the center are restricted primarily due to privacy concerns. Researchers must submit to a rigorous background check, receive data security training, and submit a formal application to win approval for their projects in order to work in the highly secure computer lab.

When the ACRDC opened, Frisvold was already studying how sales taxes on soft drinks —a strategy to reduce childhood obesity and raise revenue for budget-strapped states — affect childhood obesity. He not only needed regional tax information, but a complete portrait of consumers: where people lived, their height, weight and soft drink consumption patterns.

With access to restricted data, "we have a very precise estimate on the impact of soft drink taxes on body mass index," says Frisvold, whose project also involves colleagues at Yale University and Bates College.

Read the whole article at Emory Report.

Photo credit:


Monday, April 2, 2012

Mathematicians add logic to the lottery

The $540 million Mega Millions jackpot created a national lottery frenzy, despite the staggering odds of a one-in-175-million chance of winning.

“You are about 100 times more likely to die of a flesh-eating bacteria than you are to win the lottery,” Emory mathematician Aaron Abrams told NPR host Robert Siegel.

Abrams, and Emory mathematician Skip Garibaldi, wrote an article in American Mathematical Monthly called “Finding Good Bets in the Lottery and Why You Shouldn’t Take Them.”

Picking your birthday numbers, picking numbers that have won before or buying your ticket in a small town does not help, the mathematicians say.

“You can’t change the odds of winning a jackpot by the way you pick numbers.” Garibaldi said on ABC’s 20/20 news program. “As a mathematician, I think that’s beautiful.”

Math trumps luck when it comes to the lottery, but Garibaldi admits that he bought five Mega Millions tickets himself.

A waste of money? “Yes, but so is buying a candy bar,” he says. “In fact, buying the candy bar is worse because you’re eating the candy bar, which is bad for you. I’m just losing the money with the lottery tickets.”

Lottery study zeros in on risk
How culture shaped a mathematician