It’s been a fun day at the kids’ school, where I was helping to judge science projects this morning.
I have great news: the future of the scientific world is in safe hands. Whether it is adopting a certain diet to aid concentration in examinations (chocolate seemed to work well), testing to see how batteries deal with thermal stress (limited ill effects despite being deep frozen), or finding out how best to kill plants with household chemicals (vinegar > bleach, apparently), they’ve got it all covered.
There was no shortage of novel ideas and a great deal of enthusiasm around how to practically apply the work that they had done – especially the chocolate one. And I was really very impressed by the confidence of the kids during their interviews: well prepared, good clear answers, excellent eye contact, willing to elaborate. These guys were only 12 years old. It bodes well.
Tomorrow, my daughter takes her project in for display, but obviously, I don’t get to judge that one. Still, since it didn’t involve any chocolate, I don’t feel that I’m missing out too much.
But – can it manage to get to the ripe old age of 500 years?
Well, pop back in 2514 and researchers at Edinburgh University will be able to tell you. If there is still such a thing as a researcher by then. Or indeed a University in Edinburgh. Or indeed, an Edinburgh.
Who knows what the future holds? Other than our friend the Asparamancer, of course?
The experiment itself is really rather simple: at a given timepoint, take one of the hermetically sealed vials and crack it open, rehydrate the contents and plonk them onto an agar plate, incubate and see what grows.
A 10 year old could do that.
But not for 500 years. Because humans don’t live that long.
So the problem becomes not doing the experiment, but how to tell other people how to do the experiment. Paper won’t last. A fancy carved metal sheet might get nicked by some marauding invaders at some stage over the next 5 centuries: and technology?
The team left a USB stick with instructions, which Möller realizes is far from adequate, given how quickly digital technology becomes obsolete.
And if you think that is a bit over the top, please note that no-one had even heard about USB 25 years ago, because it hadn’t been invented then.
So, the idea is to keep up to date by charging a human (a good choice because if there are no humans around, then there’s really no-one interested in the results anyway) to update the instructions every 25 years to some suitable format that will last until the next update.
I’ve done experiments that have lasted a couple of years, but they don’t have the same difficulties as this one, because I fully expected (correctly, as it happens) to still be alive when I finished it. There were occasional issues with remembering time points, but Google Calendar helped out with them. Will Google Calendar be around in 25, 50 or 500 years? I doubt it. And it’s not like the lab staff will be working on this 24/7. This is an entirely occasional thing.
I’m not sure how often data from this experiment are going to be shared, but I’ll keep an eye out, if only to give them a nudge if I think that they’ve forgotten to do their plating that year.
Half the DNA on the NYC Subway Matches No Known Organism
Indeed. But Don’t Panic!
We have (probably) not been invaded by aliens. This is merely a reminder that science still (and always will) have its limits. It’s not that half the DNA on the NYC Subway belongs to stuff from other planets, it’s just that we can’t match it against our genetic libraries right now because we simply don’t have enough books in them yet (he said, completely mangling the analogy).
As we continue to improve our knowledge of which bits of DNA come from which organisms (and we’re really just talking about bacteria here, because we’re kinda up to date with mammals and the like), so the next time we see that chunk of DNA on a subway (or anywhere else), we can attribute it to a given organism, and reduce that 50% bit by bit until there’s very little that’s unknown about the DNA on the NYC Subway.
In the meantime, there’s a really nice interactive map here, allowing you to look at which bacteria were found at which stations, or – better still – to search by types of bacteria to see what they are associated with (from “heart valve infections” to “mozzarella cheese”) (no anthrax, though) and see whereabouts on the network they were found.
Let’s just say that I’m going to be avoiding 168th Street and East 149th Street for some time. Possibly forever.
I debated long and hard over whether to share this. On the one hand, as you’ll see, I’m a proud dad right now. On the other, I don’t want it to seem like I am showing off. No-one likes a showoff. But then no, I don’t do this sort of thing often (despite having great kids) and I do want to shout this from the metaphorical rooftops. If you have a negative opinion on my decision to do so, well, so be it.
The backstory: Earlier in the year, my 10 year old son did a science project for school. He investigated whether using stored grey water to water plants had any effect on their growth. This is important, because at home, we store any spare grey water in order to water the garden, and we don’t want to kill our plants. Topical then; a neat little project which worked out nicely, got him a certificate at school and an invitation (along with a handful of other students) to take it to the Eskom Expo for Young Scientists at UCT.
In the intervening six weeks, the boy wonder addressed the shortfalls in his initial experiment and basically did the whole thing again on a much larger scale, working literally every day throughout the school holidays.
Flash forward to the present day (well, almost): The Eskom Expo happened on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday last week. The boy, along with 900 other students, went and set up 492 projects in the infamously chilly UCT Sports Hall.
The students then had to present their experiment and were interviewed by several (or more) judges and the projects were graded accordingly.
His school did really, really well at the Expo. And I knew that his was a good project, done well. And look, given the disclaimer above, you can probably kind of guess where this is going. But I had no idea.
He won a gold medal, a special award for one of the best Environmental projects and a special award for one of the best primary school projects. We were astounded.
And then they awarded him the inaugural Priscilla Moodley Award for the Best Primary School Project at the Expo. His was the best project out of the 100 submitted in his age group. Amazing.
So yeah. I’m a proud dad right now. The kid seems to be going places, possibly following his dad into the hopelessly underfunded, but still often rather fun world of science. [screams internally: DON’T DO IT!!!!]
UPDATE: Oh, and because people are asking: He discovered that the length of time that grey water is stored for (he tested fresh, 1 week and >1 month) has no discernable effect on plant growth, and that any grey water is better than potable water (his control) for both numbers of seeds germinating & average plant height.