May 18, 2017

Axios Science

By Alison Snyder
Alison Snyder

Welcome to the first edition of Axios Science, a newsletter you'll see in your inbox every Thursday afternoon. I'm excited to share some of the top science stories from the week, including our conversations with leading researchers, a big idea to consider, and something wondrous. Think of it as a way to treat your brain after a long week.

Make sure to catch all of our science coverage throughout the week on our stream and the new Axios Future Facebook page.

Are we ready to engineer the climate?

In the face of rising global temperatures, deploying technologies to change Earth's climate has gone from thought experiment to reality. We already capture carbon and store it underground. Now some researchers are suggesting we should spray the clouds with particles to reflect sunlight, fertilize the oceans to promote carbon-absorbing plankton growth, or build a gigantic shade that orbits Earth. Welcome to the Anthropocene — the era of humans engineering the world in unprecedented ways.

We asked five researchers what we need to know before embarking on a large-scale geoengineering attempt:

Axios stories to spark your brain:
  1. Plastic pileup: Jeff Nesbit wrote about an estimated 38 million pieces of trash lining the beaches of one of the world's remotest islands.
  2. Artificial ovaries: Researchers implanted 3D-printed ovaries in mice and they gave birth to healthy babies.
  3. Warding off malaria: A genetic variation in East Africans reduces their risk for one of the deadliest forms of malaria.
  4. "Operating system for the brain": A company just got FDA approval to use virtual reality to help stroke patients.
What we're reading elsewhere:
  1. Calling all aliens: A debate sparks again about whether we should send messages to any aliens out there, per Nautilus.
  2. Therapeutic power: The NYT discusses why spending time with animals soothes us.
  3. Automating science: A cancer biologist argues human minds can't handle doing science in the age of big data.
  4. Mommy brain: Wired outlines early research into how pregnancy and motherhood change women's brains.
Tried and true: How a plant bends to light

Each week, we're going to explain an experiment -- famous, infamous, fundamental, or just fun. Today is Fascination of Plants Day (yep, it's in my calendar) and in honor of the oft-forgotten kingdom, we'll look at how plants bend to reach light, movement that allows them to grow and respond to their surroundings.

The experiment: Darwin was the first to describe the movement of plants and a flurry of resulting work established that a hormone called auxin is the key. The chemical collects on the shaded side of a plant and signals the cells there to elongate, bending the plant toward the light.

In an experiment done in 1957, plant biologist Winslow Briggs took a young grass shoot and divided it in half vertically with a mica sheet. He then shined light on one side and found that the shoot didn't bend. When he analyzed the auxin levels, he found they were equal on both sides.

Why it matters: Auxin is involved in almost all plant growth and development. In order to engineer plants for different environments, we need to understand how auxin works, and the results from this experiment are an important piece of the puzzle.

In one word: "Quintessential," says Sarah Wyatt from Ohio University, who studies how plants respond to gravity, or lack thereof. (Think "The Martian.")

1 big idea: There's certainty in uncertainty

Uncertainty is a favorite word — of scientists, politicians, and journalists. But here's the thing about uncertainty in science: It is quantifiable. Scientists know how certain they are when they say "A very likely led to B."

For example: When physicists announced the discovery of the Higgs boson, there was a numerical definition behind that declaration: a 1 in 3.5 million chance that they were seeing a fluke. That stringency isn't used for every field or paper, but they all have a number that captures uncertainty — and we should all get to know it.

Carnegie Mellon's Byron Yu says, "Probability is a way of viewing the world." And, it may be how our brain makes sense of the world. One working model for the brain is that neurons represent different probabilistic outcomes for the information they're presented.

Why it matters: Science is becoming increasingly complex. Experiments are highly specialized and in some cases not reproducible. Often, they generate massive amounts of data. We're probing reality deeper than ever and the numerical tools to make sense of it all will become even more important if everyone is to understand.

Remember this: "Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty — some most unsure, some nearly sure, none absolutely certain," physicist Richard Feynman once said.

Bottom line: Scientists need to rigorously measure uncertainty, journalists need to responsibly convey it, and we all need to make an effort to understand and embrace it.

Something wondrous

Japanese scientists put a transparent artificial wing on a ladybug in order to see how the insects fold and store their stiff flying wings. How does it work? Ladybugs use the edge and lower part of the hard outer elytra to fold the wings like origami, while at the same time lifting their abdomens to pull their soft hindwings into their storage space.

Alison Snyder

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