Star wars Christmas tree

Science Holidays to Celebrate in 2017


By Deirdre Sackett

The holiday season is upon us! Whether you’re celebrating with family, friends, or your experiments, there’s no denying the festive spirit in the air. But, after celebrating the winter holidays, we scientists can continue the celebrations and look ahead to all the wonderful and weird science holidays of 2017. Mark your calendars!

Mathematical Holidays

Math is one of the most vital and oldest aspects of science, so it makes sense that there are holidays to celebrate its importance!

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  • Probably the most famous science holiday, Pi Day falls on March 14, 2017, which represents the first three numbers of Pi (3.14). Pi is a value that represents the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. People celebrate Pi Day by baking -- you guessed it -- pies.
  • Pi Days’ status as the most famous science holiday also brings with it some drama. Two other days contend with Pi Day’s fame: Pi Approximation Day and Tau Day. Pi Approximation Day falls on July 22, 2017, and represents the fraction that would equal Pi (7/22). Tau Day falls on June 28, 2017, and celebrates tau, the symbol that represents 6.28 (double pi’s value).
  • Want to celebrate a sensible measurement system? National Metric Week falls on the week of October 10th (the tenth day of the tenth month).
  • Mole Day celebrates Avogadro’s Number (the mole, 10^23 atoms of a substance) on October 23.
  • Pythagorean Theorem Day celebrates the famous equation we were all taught in middle school algebra. Just as a refresher, this theorem states that the square of the hypoteneuse of a right triangle is equal to the sum of the square of its two sides. In 2017, it falls on August 15, because 8*8 + 15*15 = 17*17. [/unordered_list]


Space Holidays

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  • Yuri’s Night falls on April 12 and celebrates Yuri Gagarin, the first man to go to space. Yuri’s Night is celebrated across the globe as a recognition of our achievements in space travel and looking toward humanity’s future as a space-faring species.
  • Probably the most unusual on this list, National Create A Vacuum Day falls on February 4. It’s a day to celebrate and understand the science behind vacuums -- spaces where the pressure is lower than atmospheric pressure. Celebrators are encouraged to use their household vacuums to “create a vacuum”...and also clean their houses. [/unordered_list]

Nature Holidays

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  • Hagfish Day is October 18, and celebrates one of the ugliest creatures on the planet: the hagfish. The holiday is designed to help everyone appreciate the evolution of the hagfish, and to look past its unpleasant exterior - a valuable life lesson.
  • Coral Reef Awareness week is the third week in July, and celebrates the preservation of the world’s precious coral reefs.
  • Earth Day and Arbor Day are the most famous nature holidays. Earth Day is on April 22, and Arbor Day follows a week later on the 29th. You can celebrate these holidays by doing something nice for the planet, like planting a tree or cleaning up trash.[/unordered_list]

Science Education Holidays

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  • DNA Day is April 20, and is celebrated by scientists and educators worldwide. It falls on the anniversary of the human genome’s completion in 2003, and the discovery of the double helix structure in 1953. The day is dedicated to the knowledge and appreciation of DNA and genomics. The month of April is “Human Genome Month.”
  • Darwin Day is February 12, and celebrates Charles Darwin’s birthday as well as his theory of evolution.[/unordered_list]

Geeky Holidays

While not entirely scientific, these holidays can be celebrated by people who love science and nerdy things.

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  • May 4, 2017 is Star Wars Day. May the Fourth be with you!
  • Geek Pride Day falls on May 25, 2017. Get your geek on and celebrate all things nerdy![/unordered_list]

Neural Science is the dark side: Or Why We Can’t All Have Nice Things


By Franchesca Ramirez
Mind control is the dark side equivalent of the Jedi mind trick in the Star Wars megaverse. If there is anything that Vader in his multiple choke scenes has taught us is that mind control is awesome and we want. Since electricity is the currency of the brain there will be no mention of Midichlorians or The Force. While we aren’t quite telekineting a strangle in and across space, we are doing something akin to telepathing a coercion from one brain to another by harnessing knowledge of electrophysiology and computer science.

The first brain to brain interface (BTBI) brought to public attention came to us from the Nicolelis group in the Neurobiology department at Duke university. Although Miguel Nicolelis is better known for brain machine interface (BMI) tech and the Walk Again Project, his group’s work on BTBI technology proposes to create an organic computer able to solve heuristic problems considered non-computable by a general Turing machine- sure thing. Pais-Vieira and colleagues in the Nicolelis group at Duke conducted the BTBI experiments in awake, behaving rats chronically implanted with micro electrode arrays capable of neural ensemble recordings and micro stimulation in the primary motor (M1) and sensorimotor (S1) cortices of Long Evans rats. Briefly, an “encoder” rat performed sensorimotor behaviors where it selected from two choices of tactile or visual stimuli. Samples of neural activity in M1 and S1 of the encoder rats were transmitted to matching cortical regions of a “decoder” rat using intracortical micro stimulation (ICMS) while the encoder rat performed the sensorimotor behaviors. The decoder rat made identical behavioral selections significantly higher than chance, instructed by the information provided by the encoder rat's brain. Criticisms from behaviorists and engineers include a need for further control experiments necessary to account for behavior phenomena like contingency degradation and communication issues like the low information transfer rate from brain to brain. Barring all the criticisms and call for additional control experiments, the line of research is compelling and Vader would rebut that he finds the scientific community’s lack of faith disturbing.

The truly provocative and interesting aspect of this study is the modulation of both behavior and neural activity between the rats during the decoder rat’s learning phase of the stimulus response contingency. Recall that neural information transfer occurs from encoder to decoder rats, however, neural information related to the decoder rats' efficacy during the task was also sent back to the encoder rats as feedback and provided an extra reward to the encoder rat every time the decoder rat performed a trial successfully. Specifically, the encoder rats’ responded behaviorally faster and the signal to noise ratio of the neural activity extracted from the encoder rat's M1 increased following a trial when the decoder rat made an error. This is a big deal- both behavior and neural modulations of the encoder rat depended on trial by trial behavioral efficacy of the decoder rat, suggesting that they were working together toward common ends. Pais-Vieira and colleagues observed that once encoder and decoder rats started working together both animals swiftly responded earlier, reduced response rates or even stopped performing according to the paired behavior and neural feedback. Now the question begs the answer, would the decoder rats’ efficacy on the task improve over time as shown by shorter latencies and more successful trails. Nicolelis told Nature News that its not the Borg and its not telepathy but that he and colleagues created a new central nervous system made of two brains.

The logical progression of science is to figure out how we (humans) would now hijack behaviors of other mammals for our purposes- or just mind control. At the heels of the Nicolelis BTBI magnum, Harvard professor of radiology Seung-Schik Yoo and colleagues developed the first human BTBI with a rat. The most interesting quality of this study is the use of non-invasive tech to achieve the goals. Broadly, Yoo and peers used Electroencephalography (EEG) to measure neural activity through human skulls and focused ultrasound (FUS) to beam an ultrasound signal that excites neurons in the motor cortices of rat brains. Human subjects looked at a computer monitor that flickered at a target frequency and activated steady-state visual evoked potentials (SSVEPs) when a green dot appeared on the screen. Increases of SSVEP amplitudes triggered FUS neuromodulation of an anesthetized rat which consequently led to the animal’s tail movement. By making use of computer-mediated interfacing of the neural signals between human and rat Yoo and peers were able to generate a simple motor response. It remains unclear the relevance that such findings possess in the clinic and Yoo and colleagues made it a point to make a disclaimer statement in the discussion of their Plos one pub: “…it is beyond the scope of this paper to address the particular moral and philosophical issues and complex challenges, possibly even undesirable consequences that may arise with the future application of this emerging technology.” Classic.

Finally, the most up to date attempt at human mind control is from University of Washington professor of Computer Science, Rajesh Rao and professor of Psychology, Andrea Stocco. They used EEG, brain computer interface (BCI) tech, transcranial magnetic stimulation or TMS and Skype. In their August 2013 pilot study Rao’s and Stocco’s groups used Skype to coordinate and set each of them up in their respective labs. Rao acted as sender, donning a cap with electrodes connected to an EEG and Stocco the receiver, wearing his own cap marked with the stimulation site for the TMS coil positioned over his left motor cortex which controls movement of the right hand. Rao played a video game with his mind manipulating a cursor to hit the “fire” button when a cannon needed to be fired. Stocco did not play the video game yet reportedly moved his right index finger and manually pushed a space bar as if to fire the cannon at the same instant that Rao had done so across campus with his mind. Stocco found the experience of his hand moving uncontrollably comparable to a nervous tic. Rao on the other hand expressed that he found the event “both exciting and eerie to watch an imagined action from my brain get translated into actual action by another brain.” Although, this is a pilot study and proper experiments with adequate controls are the logical next step- the proof of concept inspires awe.

The complexity of research questions related to minds controlling other minds or, more practically, machines, will only increase. Already we have numerous nameless computer science, engineering, biology and psychology undergrad and grad students who write code for projects, translating brain signals into commands for other brains or machines. The forerunners in this field all speak of their findings with reverence, awe and always hint at the possibility of it’s uses for sinister purposes unless ethics happens. Neural Science is in fact the dark side and we love this.

The Force Beyond Genetics


By Katherine Peng

From humans, to wookies, to Jar Jar Binks. With over 20 million species in the Star Wars galaxy, one can assume that not even this fictional universe is exempt from the laws of evolution. A conversation on how diverse environments pushed them to look so strange (or like cute little ewoks!) through rare mutations would be a discussion of the “hard inheritance” of DNA sequences, but what about soft inheritance? Can the surrounding environment in one lifespan change DNA in ways that can be passed on to offspring?

You’re shaking your head thinking DUH..NO, as thoughts jump back to the image of that giraffe in your biology 101 textbook. Remember that a once accepted theory of evolution proposed by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck suggested that acquired traits were inherited (e.g. a giraffe constantly stretching it’s neck to reach tall trees will give birth to giraffes with longer necks)? We now know that this theory is preposterous. What if Yoda lost his favorite toe in battle and decided to procreate? Would all future Yodas be afflicted with the curse of having only 5 toes?

BUT WAIT. Lamarck might have been onto something after all! Molecular biology has found that environmental factors CAN affect DNA without altering the sequence, and that these changes can be passed on to future generations (though not often beneficially). Welcome to the field of epigenetics!

In all eukaryotic cells in ours and the Star Wars galaxy, DNA is packaged around histone proteins. This DNA can be methylated and/or the histones can be modified to silent gene expression. People nowadays are becoming increasingly interested in how environmental factors produce these epigenetic changes and affect disease patterns.Genome-wide epigenetic studies are more commonly done on identical twins, where differences between individuals must be environmental. While Luke and Leia Skywalker are fraternal twins, sharing ~50% of their genes as would regular siblings, they were separated at birth to be raised in different environments. So, let’s take a look at how they become more different than their genetics would have us believe.


In 2004, researchers from McGill University discovered that early nurturing from rat mothers remove epigenetic repression of the glucocorticoid receptor gene in rat pups. Consequently, rats that were not well nurtured became more sensitive to stress as adults.


Though childhood scenes of Luke and Leia are basically nonexistant, we do know that Leia was adopted into a very loving royal family who could not have children of their own. Luke was adopted by his step-uncle and step-uncle’s wife. His step-uncle did not approve of his adventurous tendencies, which created tension.

VERDICT: Though both twins are at risk of higher stress responses due to Amidala’s likely depression during pregnancy, hints of a less nurturing environment suggest that Luke may be more sensitive to stress as an adult than Leia.


The Swedes are on a role in this category. A recent Swedish study shows that 20 minutes of exercise can reverse DNA methylation of genes in muscle that show lowered expression in type 2 diabetes. Another shows that 6 months of exercise changed the methylation pattern of genes in fat cells implicated in the risk of developing obesity or diabetes.

While Luke is working the moisture farm in Tattoine and having adventures, Leia is a palace princess in Alderaan.

VERDICT: While it seems that both Luke and Leia are fit later on, Luke appeared more active as a child and may be at a lower risk for type 2 diabetes. Sorry Leia.


Bioactive food components (in tea, soybean, etc.) might beneficially reduce DNA hypermethylation of cancer associated genes. On the flip side, folate found in fresh produce is required for DNA methylation, and its deficiency in pregnant moms may cause disease or cancer in children. You are also what your father eats. A mouse study showed that a paternal low-protein diet created upregulation of lipid biosynthesis in offspring.

Unfortunately, there’s no real information out there on the diet of the Skywalkers so…

VERDICT: Inconclusive.


So what have we learned here today? Leia needs to ramp up her training, and Luke should control that anxiety before he becomes like his father. But really, epigenetic changes in twins aren’t too different until later in life so I guess it’s all speculation until Disney releases the first installment of the sequel trilogy.

Clones In Space, I Have Placed (Infographic)


By Brent Wells, PhD


Did Lucasfilm Ltd. direct an explosion in cloning efforts at first rumors of the storyline for Episode II, Attack of the Clones? Or did scientist’s unstoppable desire to achieve the impossible instruct the fate of the Empire? We may never know. But the happy coincidence and a recently christened holiday have brought you science in pictures so don’t think about it too much and enjoy.


Credit: Brent Wells, PhD
Credit: Brent Wells, PhD.
Click on the image and then expand to full screen.


If I’ve managed to assemble this infographic even half as well as I imagine George Lucas can assemble a sandwich, you probably command a decent understanding of the history of cloning technology by now. Like the special effects technologies developed at Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), cloning has advanced from its humble, yet provocative beginnings, into something awe-inspiring and useful at once. Unlike ILM special effects, each subsequent step in the maturation of cloning tech brings something more impressive than before.


A new study published just last week in the journal Nature describes the creation of a human, diploid, embryonic stem cell population using SCNT from an adult with Type 1 Diabetes. This is huge for a number of reasons: 1) They were able to use tissue from an adult, which negates any ethical concerns surrounding use of embryonic or fetal tissue. 2) They created diploid cells that can be used in treating human disease. Similar embryonic stem cells were generated in 2011 but were triploid, which means they contained three sets of chromosomes instead of the normal two found in humans, making them non-compatible and therefore inviable for use in disease treatment. 3) The stem cells, cloned from an individual with Type 1 Diabetes, can give rise to the very cells lost due to Type 1 Diabetes, and since they are clones of the affected individual, his/her body will not reject treatment that introduces new cells into their body to replace those lost to the disease.


This advancement in cloning technology is a significant step forward in creating stem cell banks that can actually be used in the study and treatment of disease on a case-by-case basis and will extend well beyond Diabetes. It also furthers efforts in the growth of complete replacement organs for those in need of matching donors – after all, there’s no better match for you than you.


If you want to learn more about cloning, *waves hand in front of face, uses weird voice inflection* You want to learn more about cloning. You’re going to look into the following resources. I am not the droid you’ve been looking for.


Wikipedia, of course

The Basic Science Partnership at Harvard Medical School

The Animal Biotechnology Resource at UCDavis

The Genetic Science Learning Center at the University of Utah Health Sciences

Or just Google it…


May the 4th be with you.

Yoda and the Science of Aging in the Star Wars Universe


By Evelyn Litwinoff


The first time I saw the Star Wars movies, I could not take Yoda seriously. Having grown up watching and loving the muppets, Yoda sounded too much like Fozzy Bear to be a Jedi Master. I kept waiting for him to add “wakka wakka” to the end of his nonsensical sentences and break out into song and dance.


If you think about it, Yoda is certainly an interesting creature. His species is never defined, we don’t know much about his childhood background, he has a crazy long lifespan, and he’s two feet tall yet a powerful fighter. So as homage to Yoda from a scientist’s perspective, I’d like to play a game with you. Let’s pretend Yoda lives in our universe and use our science prowess to figure out how on earth, excuse me, on Dagobah, he lived to be 900 years old without getting cancer.


When thinking about mechanisms behind aging, the first thing that comes to mind is telomeres. A telomere is a non-coding DNA sequence that serves as a protective “cap” on the end of a chromosome. (A chromosome is essentially a condensed string of DNA.) Every time a cell replicates it makes a copy of its DNA to pass on to the new cell. However during the process of replication, the new DNA copy loses some of the sequence on the end of the chromosome. In order to prevent losing important DNA sequence, the telomere sequence comes after the important DNA sequence so it is the telomere sequence that gets shorter with each replication. When telomeres become too short, which is usually by the end of the organisms’ lifespan, the cells are considered old and will die, eventually resulting in the death of the whole organism.


This leads us to idea #1: Yoda must have super long telomeres so it would take centuries for these telomeres to shorten and cause death. This issue with this hypothesis is that absolute length of telomeres does not necessarily correlate with longer lifespan. For instance, mice telomeres are longer than humans telomeres, but mice have a lifespan of 3-5 years, which is way shorter than human lifespan. Vera et al suggested that instead of telomere length, rate of telomere shortening more accurately correlates with lifespan, i.e., the slower the rate of telomere shortening, the longer the lifespan. So let’s alter idea #1 to idea #2: Yoda had super long telomeres with a super slow rate of telomere shortening.


Now telomeres can be elongated by the enzyme telomerase. So it would be possible that in addition to having long telomeres with a slow shortening rate, Yoda could also have high levels of telomerase. However, overexpressing telomerase in mice leads to the development of cancer, and as far as I know, Yoda didn’t have any tumors or chemotherapy during his lifetime. Interestingly, there is a body of literature on telomerase in cancer resistant mice. How fascinating is that! These cancer resistant mice have a mutated tumor suppressor gene, p53, which prevents development of cancer cells. In this cancer resistant environment, telomerase overexpression leads to a longer, healthier lifespan.


This led me to wonder, do any species have naturally occurring mutations that make them resistant to cancer (and would this species be similar to Yoda)? Scizzle to the rescue! Apparently, naked mole rats have fibroblasts (cells that produce fibers such as collagen) that secrete cancer killing signaling molecules, which makes these mole rats resistant to cancer! (For those interested, they took the media from cultured naked mole rat fibroblasts and used it to culture breast cancer and liver cancer cells. These cancer cells were unable to survive with the mole rat fibroblast media, although they did survive with media from cultured mouse fibroblasts.) So what is different about these naked mole rat fibroblasts? Although the mechanism of cancer resistance is not fully worked out, it is known that there are mutations in the naked mole rat p53 gene that increase DNA repair mechanisms and cell cycle arrest, but promote apoptosis (cell death). These mutations are believed to have evolved to promote survival in hypoxic (low oxygen) environments, where naked mole rats live.


Let’s bring this back to Yoda. If Yoda’s lifespan is due to long telomeres with a slow rate of telomere shortening, it is possible that Yoda has constitutively active telomerase in order to keep the telomeres in tact. However, if he had high levels of telomerase and no signs of cancer, he must also be cancer resistant. Since we just learned that naked mole rats are naturally cancer resistant and this may be related to their hypoxic environment, could Yoda’s environment make him cancer resistant? Towards the end of his life, Yoda lives in a swamp: definitely not a hypoxic environment. Furthermore his end of life environment wouldn’t explain how he survived all those years before arriving to Dagobah. Since we don’t know all that much about Yoda’s childhood, let’s get creative here. We do know that Yoda lives and breathes with the force just like the rest of his species. So maybe the force is a stream of hypoxic energy that altered his species’ genes to make them cancer resistant. This fits well with the fact that all members of his species we know about are Jedi, and Jedi are known to have longer lifespans.


Our study of Yoda and telomeres gives us an idea of how Yoda lived to be 900 years old without developing cancer. Of note, this discussion is based on the major motion pictures, not the Expanded Universe. But, if you are well versed in this expanded media franchise, I’d love to hear your scientific take on aging in the Star Wars universe!




Clone wars - GMOs: Jedis or Siths?


By Jesica Levingston Mac leod, PhD

In any molecular biology lab cloning is a daily procedure, but getting those clones outside of the lab is the huge issue. Genetic modified organisms or GMOs were subjected to specific genes alterations, and then cloned to obtain a larger number of identical organisms. Here, I would like to compare the two faces of this technology and its impact in the nature.


GMOs as Jedis, the good use of the force:

Since this technology was introduced to the field the pesticide spraying has been reduced by 499 million kg (-8.7%) and this decreased the environmental impact associated with herbicide and insecticide use on the crops by 18.6% (as measured by the indicator the Environmental Impact Quotient [EIQ]). Furthermore, it has been reported a significant reduction in the release of greenhouse gas emissions from this cropping area, which, in 2012, was equivalent to removing 11.88 million cars from the streets.

Economically, they bring a high advantage to the farmers, allowing them to grow in a competitive environment, generating more products with a lower expenses.

GMOs are helping to supply resources a never ending growing world population. Therefore, they could be a solution for the doomsday prediction that the economist Maltus made more than 100 years ago: "we are going to run out of resources and we won't feed an exponential rising world population". Science published at the beginning of 2000 a breakthrough research: the golden rice. This special GMO counts with the addition of three beta-carotene biosynthesis genes. These compounds added nutrient value to the rice, as they are precursors for the vitamin A biosyntheses. This project was leaded by Drs. Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer of the University of Freiburg, whom had the aim to introduce this enriched rice in the african, latin american and asian market where the deficit in this vitamin causes terrible health problems. At the time of publication, golden rice was considered a significant breakthrough in biotechnology, as the researchers had engineered an entire biosynthetic pathway. Five years later, a new version of the golden rice producing up to 23 times more beta-carotene than the original, was announced.

GMOs on the dark side of the force:

As an artificial organism that we are introducing to nature we can only try to predict how are we going to impact the environment. The ecology of this artificial selection was predicted as catastrophic, for example for the soy harvest in Argentina, where the excessive use of this GMO leaves the soil without nutrients, kind of "death" and unable to generate any other product. This exhaustion of the field may bring a negative impact in the future.

According to the center for food safety, GMOs products make up about 90 percent of cash crops like cotton, corn and soybeans nationwide. As Monsanto holds the 80% and the 90% of american corn and soybeans , respectively, and its licenses, the monopoly issue started to rise. Neither the farmers or scientist are allowed to research on the GMOs created by Monsanto, without a legal permission. This avoids the independent safety testing, and some scientists have rise the case to the US Supreme Court.

Furthermore, the farmers are subject to pay the increase price for the seeds that they can only buy for a few companies. Indeed, between 1995 and 2011, the per acre cost of corn and soybean increased 259% and 325%, respectively (US Department of Agriculture). With this strong license policy, an increasing number of small farmers have gone bankrupt as a consequence of having an accidental (like wind dispersal, split seed or cross contamination) presence of GMO on their fields. It is not surprising that with this situation the idea of changing seeds, buying a non-GMO species scares the farmers.


The labeling topic is even more sensible. The Food and Drug Administration favors voluntary labeling and says GMO products must meet the same safety levels as other foods. On the other hand the Center for Food Safety supports mandatory labeling. The GMOs producers prefer to avoid the labeling, as it brings unwanted attention to the product and bad advertising. The pro labeling organizations claim that it is the consumer right to know exactly what they are eating. My favorite comment in this regard was made by Gene Hall, a spokesman for the Texas Farm Bureau: “We don’t need to label something that is absolutely safe.”

As a great technology in development, GMOs are like Anakin Skywalker in his early age trying to decide which side of the force he should join, both present advantages and disadvantages, but without a correct guidance, like Yoda would be, this technology could be joining the dark side of the force.

The Evolution of the Cutest Creatures in Star Wars


By Chris Spencer and Brent Wells, PhD

Credit:  Mary Harrsch (Flickr).
Mary Harrsch

Being such a staple of science fiction, Star Wars contains creatures whose evolution ought to be explainable scientifically. So strap in, and come with us as we cast Darwin’s eye over four species from the Star Wars galaxy:



The only wookiee we saw in the original trilogy was the enigmatic Chewbacca, but fortunately enough, we were able to get a glimpse of an entire wookiee community in Revenge of the Sith. These powerfully built furry humanoids are an arboreal race from the planet Kashyyyk. Being tree dwellers, they are well adapted for climbing – having sharp grasping claws, and strong backs and calves. Their characteristic fur has evolved for two purposes: it can be any of a range of earthy brown colours for camouflage whilst hunting terrestrially, and it produces a water repellent oil for swimming. Their sharp teeth and keen sense of smell are hallmarks of a species evolved to be hunters.



Credit: originalpozer (Flickr).
Credit: originalpozer (Flickr).


According to Wookieepedia, rancors are large, carnivorous reptomammals from the planet Dathomir. Before I move on, a reptomammal, as far as I can tell, is a warm-blooded, oviparous reptile. Rancors grow as tall as 8-10 meters with long, pronounced arms and hands and small, under grown legs, kind of like a reverse T. Rex. This massively unbalanced center of gravity would normally be an evolutionary conundrum, but as a reptomammal, it’s clear the rancor plays by nobody’s rules, including natures, just like Earth’s duck-billed Platypus.

The massive size and top heaviness of rancors can be attributed to the low gravity on Dathomir. Alternatively, their size may be a consequence of the rich, almost unending diet the planet provides or the fact that Rancors, unlike regular mammals, lay eggs; it has been suggested that vivipary could limit the size of land-dwelling mammals. One final factor that could have aided in the evolution of such a large predator is the temperate climate the rancor evolved in. An inverse correlation between temperature and body size has been seen in some warm-blooded mammals, maybe because of overheating issues, maybe as a secondary consequence of higher atmospheric CO2, which would lead to more plant food sources and therefore prey food sources. The rancor’s thick, reptilian skin, large claws and teeth, and powerful jaws are all traits that evolved to aid their predatory abilities and their sense of smell became keen to help them find mates.

Rancors give birth to two young at a time, like polar bears, and following their birth, the young are carried on the body (one clutching to its chest and one to its back) until the young reach maturity. This is no easy feat considering the young are up to three meters tall at birth - this is nearly 50% the size of the adult rancor. As an apex predator, we can assume the rancor hunts and therefore attacks its prey. It would also need to defend its kill from other rancor and top predators roaming Dathomir in search of a free meal. Therefore, we can hypothesize that the evolution of its unnaturally long arms came as a way to do battle while the equivalent of a five-year-old child is strapped to its chest. Without extra-long arms with which to work around the front child, the young would surely perish during the battle, preventing the inheritance of genetic information and fixation of traits in the wild population. By carrying double their own bodyweight around in children, rancors have also found a way to lower infant mortality in the species.



Credit: Brendan (Flickr).
Credit: Brendan (Flickr).


These furry bipeds were used on Hoth by the rebellion in the opening scenes of Empire. Living on an enormous snowball such as Hoth will necessitate adaptations not dissimilar to those displayed by polar bears, including being warm blooded (they are reptomammals not unlike the rancor) - as referenced by Han’s innovative use of the interior of a tauntaun. Their tridactyl feet are furry and with splayed toes to act like snowshoes, with claws to help gain purchase on icier terrain. They also have four nostrils serving to warm air before entering the lungs. The larger pair of nostrils can seal to keep snow out during periods of rest. One key aspect of tauntaun physiology is one shared by many arctic fish: anti-freeze in the bloodstream.



Credit: Angelo Su (Flickr).
Credit: Angelo Su (Flickr).

Yoda belongs to a species of small, long-lived creatures with green skin. His longevity is a consequence of a calorically restricted diet and an incredibly slow metabolism, something his species evolved in conjunction with their short stature and slow movement. They live in the wet, dark swamps of an unnamed planet similar to Dagobah, where Yoda was later exiled. Their diet is composed primarily of swamp plants and small insects. Yoda’s species has evolved tough claws on their fingers for prying bark from trees in search of beetles and other insects. Their unusually large ears have evolved as a means to avoid capture by larger, carnivorous animals that would gladly have them for dinner. Hearing predators from a distance is particularly necessary given their slow speed. Their green skin was also evolved as a defensive mechanism to help avoid predation through camouflage; green is the perfect colour for blending in with the large ferns and aquatic plants of their home planet and the creatures of this species are all but invisible among the green swamp gases that persistently hang in the air. Do not confuse Yoda’s bursts of speed during battle with a common trait of all members of his species. He was a Jedi Master, which provided him with special skills. A skill he did not possess, however, was a mastery of the English language.






May the 4th be with you: The Force of Magical Thinking


By Alex Berardino

In light of ‘May the 4th be with you week’ here at Scizzle, and the recent announcement from J.J. Abrams of the cast for the newest Star Wars film, I’ve been thinking a lot about the original Star Wars trilogy. As a kid, I used to watch a marathon of all three of the original films every time we went on vacation, so they are pretty much burned into my subconscious. In fact, I’m fairly certain that many of my desires as a young man were motivated from things that I saw in those movies. I wanted to own an ewok (I settled for a Pug), I wanted a phaser (I settled for a pretty nifty home laser tag set), and I wanted to be able to control things with my mind just like Obi Wan Kenobi. The last one, telekinesis, I still haven’t settled on.


I’m not the only person who has ever hoped that they could control the physical world with their thoughts, or attributed things that have happened in the world around them to the influence of their thoughts. Psychologists have a phrase for this imagined telekinesis, magical thinking. Another name for it is the illusion of control. Either way, we, as a species, are particularly susceptible to attributing causation between two events when one of those events directly precedes the other, even when one of those events is strictly within our mind. There are many reasons for this. The most important is that it behooves us to find causal relationships in the world around us. Identifying these kind of relationships allows us to do the most central thing that our brains do, make predictions. If event B always follows event A, I can make an easy prediction that when event A happens, event B will follow, and I can plan accordingly. As such, we have a lot of machinery in our brains for identifying these relationships.


At the simplest level, this reduces to finding relationships between our actions and basic rewards. The basal ganglia, a set of structures that sit deep within the center of our brains, are constantly trying to predict the reward you will receive from an action or from something in your environment. They also calculate the error between their own prediction and the actual reward you get in order to make better predictions in the future. The way these systems work allows them to settle on predictions that match the probability that reward B actually follows action A, meaning that some reward that follows 100% of the time will actually have a larger reward prediction in your brain that one that follows only 70% of the time. At much higher levels, different areas within your cortex, the folded sheet of neurons that you see when you see a picture of the brain, and the hippocampus, an internal structure shaped a lot like a sea horse, are processing much more complicated relationships between things in your environment, and even between your thoughts and your environment. The cortex nests these relationships into a model that incorporates many of the past relationships that it has identified.   This model then helps you to make a prediction when you see something happen.


All this is to say that a large portion of your brain is constantly looking for these causal relationships and constantly making predictions based on the model it has built. In fact, research from the Tenenbaum lab  at MIT has shown that in many areas of life, people’s predictions about causal relationships in the world, for example intuition about the way that a tower of blocks will land when they are toppled on a table, are very accurate and fit a model of what is called Bayesian prediction. Without going into any detail at all, this essentially means that people incorporate prior information about how physics works, intuitively, and when they see the blocks begin to fall, they make accurate predictions of the probabilities of where the blocks will land by taking into account both what they see, and their prior knowledge. Most of the time, this machinery works very well, and allows us to build up fairly incredible working models of what we call ‘reality’.


Sometimes, however, we get trapped into finding relationships that aren’t there. In an elegant study, Daniel Wegner of Harvard University had subjects watch a basketball player take a series of free throws. He instructed them to visualize the player making his shots, and when they had, they felt that they had contributed to the player’s success, but ultimately not their failures. He explains the findings as such “In everyday experience, intention (such as wanting to turn on a light) is followed by action (such as flicking a light switch) in a reliable way, but the underlying neural mechanisms are outside awareness. Hence, though subjects may feel that they directly introspect their own free will, the experience of control is actually inferred from relations between the thought and the action.” Essentially, we don’t actually know what our neurons are doing when we intend to move, or when we move, or the relationship between them. The machinery of our brain simply has learned a reliable relationship between the feeling of intention, and the observation of action in the world. This can make us susceptible to magical thinking.


The second point of this study, that people didn’t think that they contributed to the times when the player was not successful, helps explain the second most important reason for magical thinking, cognitive bias. We simply remember the events where an outcome in the world was correlated with something we thought, and don’t remember all of the times when it wasn’t, which far outnumber the times when it was. This causes us to overweight the probability of the relationship between our thoughts and the actions of the world around us, and this corrupts our model of prior knowledge.


Despite our inherent limitations as human beings, we are on the edge of a form of telekinesis with the aid of technology. Each of our neurons communicates with other neurons by putting out a very tiny electrical spike. We have billions of neurons in each of our brains, and the collective spiking of these neurons adds up to a much larger (but less informative) electrical wave that we can measure outside of the skull using EEG (ElectroEncephaloGram). When you think about different things, different patterns of electrical activity are formed in your brain, and the EEG can tell the difference between many of these patterns. So, in essence, after sufficient training, an EEG coupled with a computer can learn to recognize specific thoughts from outside your skull. There are many groups working to incorporate this technology into real physical devices like wheelchairs, semi-autonomous cars, one group has even figured out a way to utilize them in a system that allows a man with MS to draw using small eye motions. All of these technologies would be enormously helpful to people who, through tragic events, are left with perfectly functioning brains but lack the ability to move their limbs. None of them rely on magic or the force, just a simple understanding of the way that our brains work. Perhaps I won’t have to settle after all.



Nine Star Wars-Inspired Creatures Found on Planet Earth


By Susan Sheng

If you think back to biology class when you had to learn about the official genus and species nomenclature to describe all living organisms, a lot of the names were Latin words usually describing where the organisms was originally found, or some physical characteristic of it. In fact, there is a (very long) set of rules laid out in the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature  governing how newly discovered species are named. Some mischievous scientists however have snuck in pop culture references when naming their discoveries, with Star Wars characters being one major influence.

Credit:  Jason Bond.
Credit: Jason Bond.

Aptostichus sarlacc (Bond, 2012)

n 2012, Jason Bond, a professor at Auburn University, discovered 33 new species of trapdoor spiders, all of which belonged to the Aptostichus genus. Aptostichus sarlacc was named for the Sarlacc creature in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi  and was found in the Mojave Desert in California. Much like the Sarlacc which lived in the desert planet Tatooine, trapdoor spiders live in underground burrows which are often covered by “trapdoors” made of soil, sand and plant material.

This genus also has many other “famous” members in its species, including Aptostichus angelinajolieae and Aptostichus barackobamai.


Darthvaderum (Hunt, 1996)

While studying mites from eastern Australia, Glenn Hunt reported, “When I saw the SEM of the gnathosoma I immediately thought of Darth Vader, evil antihero of Star Wars.” Take a look if you can at Figures 12-14 in his report in the Records of the Australian Museum; the resemblance is certainly there! (Warning, it’s a big document!)


Han Solo (Turvey, 2005)

Who says scientists don’t have a sense of humor? Trilobites are hard-shelled creatures which lived in the deep sea during the Paleozoic Era over 520 million years ago, and their fossils today can be found all over the world. In 2005, Samuel Turvey described the discovery and classification of three new species of agnostid trilobites found in southern China, one of which was named Han solo. In his paper in the Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Turvey states that the name pays tribute to the place where the fossils were found (“Han,” after the Han Chinese) and the fact that this particular species “appears to represent the last surviving member of the Diplagnostidae” (hence, “solo”). Unofficially however, Turvey was reportedly dared by his friends to name the creature after a Star Wars character  (As an aside, in the same report Turvey named another trilobite, Geragnostus waldorfstatleri, after two characters from “The Muppet Show.”)


Tetramorium jedi. Credit:
Tetramorium jedi. Credit:

Tetramorium jedi (Garcia and Fisher, 2012)

The Tetramorium jedi is an ant found on the island of Madagascar and was first described by Garcia and Fisher in 2012 Although Garcia and Fisher don’t describe why they were inspired to name this ant after the Jedis from Star Wars, I think it could have something to do with the spike on its back that could resemble a light saber…


Yoda purpurata (Priede et al., 2012)

Credit: Carl Malamud (Flickr).
Credit: Carl Malamud (Flickr).

Named for the resemblance between its large lateral lips and Yoda’s ears, the Yoda purpurata was one of three new species of acorn worms reported by a team of researchers from the University of Aberdeen in 2012. The worm was found along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge between Iceland and the Azores. Acorn worms are particularly interesting to evolutionary biologists as some of its anatomical features are similar to those found in vertebrates, leading to debate over whether these worms are an evolutionary link between invertebrates and vertebrates.


Albunione yoda (Markham and Boyko, 2003)

Yoda’s ears were the inspiration for the naming of this isopod parasite, found on sand crabs on the western coast of Taiwan. The female members of this species have long lateral extensions on their heads, which resemble Yoda’s long droopy ears.


Polemistus chewbacca, P. vaderi, P. yoda (Menke and Vincent, 1983)

Arnold Menke and David Vincent paid tribute to their favorite Star Wars characters when naming three new wasp species discovered in 1983.  These wasps are found in the southwestern United States and Central America.

Handheld Holographic Devices a la Star Wars?


By Susan Sheng

When I was very young, I remember being mesmerized by the holographic bird on my parents’ credit cards, how the bird seemed to flap its wings as you tilted the card at different angles. More recently, I was awed by the use of holograms in art in the “The Jeweled Net: Views of Contemporary Holography” exhibit at the MIT Museum. I thought it was really cool how three-dimensional objects rendered on a flat surface could be viewed from different perspectives and angles, as if the object was really sitting there.


Holograms are featured numerous times in the Star Wars movies, primarily as a form of telecommunication  (perhaps the early inspiration for telepresence robots  given that members of the Jedi Council could attend via holograms?). While traditional, real-life holograms rely on lasers and special photosensitive materials to capture physical objects, a 2013 letter in Nature  discusses current research to create 3D displays which could one day fit in devices as small as a mobile phone.


The 1971 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Dennis Gabor for “his invention and development of the holographic method,” in 1947 while attempting to improve electron microscopes. With the invention of lasers, the first optical holograms are attributed to Yuri Denisyuk (Soviet Union), and Emmett Leith and Juris Upatnieks (both at University of Michigan, USA) in 1962. Holograms are created by splitting a laser beam in two and using mirrors and lenses, shining the beams onto an object. These reflected beams are then recorded on some recording medium, such as silver halide photographic emulsion. The light wave patterns generated by the two beams interfere with each other, and this interference pattern is what is ultimately recorded on the medium. Then to view the recorded hologram, a laser of the same frequency as one used to create the hologram is shone onto the developed film, and the resulting light pattern is projected onto our retinas as a virtual image.


Because we as humans have two forward-facing eyes, each eye receives a slightly different image of the world and our brains convert that into a 3 dimensional representation; this is known as stereoscopic vision. Currently 3D displays involve using some form of glasses to display slightly different images to each eye. This can be down by actively shuttering images between the left and right eye, or with different polarizing lenses.


A group at Hewlett-Packard Laboratories in Palo Alto, CA built on the idea of autostereoscopic displays to create a diffractive backlight system that could generate 3D images. Autostereoscopic displays are give the perception of 3D images without needing the viewer to wear any special headgear or glasses; an example of this type of display can be found in the Nintendo 3DS gaming system. Existing displays are limited in the viewing angles, and thus Fattal and colleagues sought to overcome this limitation with their new backlight display. They used standard LED lights for edge lighting, and this light is guided to a series of etched directional gratings which then scatter light across the viewing area. Due to physical hardware limitations, Fattal and colleagues were only able to build a prototype that allows 14 viewing directions, although in theory they could eventually build a device that has 64 viewing directions, allowing for smooth 3D renditions of objects (the number of viewing zones reflects the number of positions around the screen that would allow for the correct differential display of images on each eye resulting in the perception of three dimensional objects; outside of the viewing zone, the objects would appear two dimensional). Additionally what is promising about this new back light display is that it is small and compact.


Although there are many hardware and computational challenges that must be overcome before a device like this could hit the markets, perhaps one day instead of video conferencing, we could be virtually transported to our meeting site for an “in-person” conversation.

Star Wars Planets: More Science Fact than Fiction


By Knicole Colon, PhD

The Star Wars universe is enormous, with hundreds of planets and moons that have a range of properties.  Given that astronomers have now discovered some ~1500 exoplanets along with, of course, the 8 planets and ~150 moons in our Solar System, it should be no surprise that astronomers are discovering more and more real planets that are similar to the fictional planets in the Star Wars universe.


First, let us look at Tatooine, the home planet of Anakin and Luke Skywalker.  The most unique feature of this planet is that it orbits around two stars.  In fact, one of the most iconic shots from the Star Wars movies is of Luke on Tatooine with two stars setting in the sky in the background.  Yet, up until a few years ago, astronomers were not sure if planets could actually exist in stable orbits around more than one star.  The Kepler mission changed everything when it discovered a planet orbiting two ordinary stars.  That planet, Kepler-16b, is most likely a gas giant planet that is more similar to Saturn than the rocky/desert planet that Tatooine is, but it is still exciting that planets with multiple stars like Tatooine do exist after all.  Plus, we now understand that there is no reason a planet can’t exist in a stable orbit, even in the habitable zone, around two or more stars.


Compared to Tatooine, Kamino is a bit less fantastical.  Kamino is an ocean planet where the clone army was created.  While I can’t speak to whether any clone armies exist somewhere in the real universe, it is a fact that water worlds like Kamino can exist.  GJ 1214b is an exoplanet that is a bit larger than Earth, and for awhile it was believed to be a pure ocean planet based on observations that probed its atmosphere.  It is now believed to have a uniform cloud layer high up in its atmosphere, but it is still possible that underneath that cloud layer, there exists one big ocean.  Maybe it’s even constantly raining there, just like in scenes on Kamino in Episode II!  Even though ocean planets really can exist, I don’t know that anyone would actually want to live on a water world where it’s potentially always raining.


If Kamino were further from its star and therefore a lot colder, it might be something like Hoth.  Hoth is (in)famous for being a frigid planet, covered by ice and snow.  During the so-called “polar vortex” this past winter, I recall hearing numerous references of Earth being very much like Hoth.  Since winter did eventually end here and summer is coming (unlike in Game of Thrones), Earth is not a good example of a real Hoth-like planet.  However, there is a growing number of small, potentially rocky exoplanets that orbit at very large distances from their host stars.  Being so far from the main source of heat in a planetary system means that these planets are quite cold, and could very well have Hoth-like climates.  One example is OGLE-2006-BLG-109Lc, which takes about 15 years to orbit its host star.  Based on the temperature of its host star and its orbital distance from its star, that planet has an estimated temperature of -360 degrees Fahrenheit.  I’m thinking that might be a bit too cold for anyone to survive there, so if anyone wanted to visit a “real” Hoth one day, we might need to find a planet that is a bit warmer.  Or, just wait until next winter comes.


On the opposite end, a lava planet like Mustafar is not an ideal place to settle down either.  Mustafar is the setting for the epic showdown between Darth Vader, (spoiler alert!) previously known as Anakin Skywalker, and Obi-Wan Kenobi.  In that fight scene, they have to take great care to avoid lava spewing at them.  Interestingly, the volcanic activity on Mustafar is supposed to be a result of the gravitational effect caused by two nearby gas giant planets.  This is very similar to the effect Jupiter has on its moons, in particular Io.  Because of gravitational stresses, Io is the most geologically active object in our Solar System, and images have even been taken of volcanic eruptions on its surface.  There are also known exoplanets that are so hot they probably have lava oceans, thanks to orbiting extremely close to their host stars.  One example is CoRoT-7b, which has an orbital period of just ~ 0.85 days or ~ 20 hours!  This was another discovery not expected by astronomers, simply because it was not believed that a planet could survive being so close to its host star.  While CoRoT-7b will likely be “eaten” by its star eventually, for now it is in a stable orbit, with lava likely flowing happily all over its surface.  For all we know, there is some villainous person like Darth Vader hiding there now, preparing to take over the universe.  We can only hope there is some Jedi-type person who is willing to brave the lava and take the villain down!


Last but not certainly not least, we have the Death Star.  Its name is quite misleading, since the Death Star is no star.  And, as Obi-Wan Kenobi also pointed out, “That's no moon. It's a space station.”  While the Death Star is a feat of engineering rather than an astronomical object, there was a bit of a ruckus in the astronomical community when pictures of Saturn’s moon Mimas were taken by the Cassini probe in 2005.  That’s because Mimas has a remarkably large crater on its surface, giving it a similar appearance as the Death Star.  Thankfully, the resemblance ends there.  Mimas does not have a powerful superlaser that is capable of destroying an entire planet.  But, if it did have a laser, and if it was used by villains to destroy the Earth, I imagine Earth’s  crumbled remains would eventually form what resembles an asteroid belt.  That is something to keep in mind - for any extrasolar asteroid belts that are discovered, we should consider that they could be the result of destruction by a Death Star.


As time goes on and astronomers keep hunting for planets, the fictional Star Wars planets are going to become increasingly realistic.  Still, we will never be able to find the “real” Tatooine or Hoth because those planets existed “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away....”