Every time you step outside, you’re stepping into an active scientific experiment. Animals, plants, and other organisms are constantly eating, moving, changing, behaving, and interacting in ways we are still just beginning to understand.
When I was in fifth grade, I took care of a light pink flower that sat by the windowsill in my classroom. Every time I noticed my plant leaning towards the window, I turned it around so I could watch how, after a couple days, it had tilted towards the window again. I later learned in class that plants grow towards light, but I wondered, was there more to it? Did the flower learn to do this?
Which dog breed is the strongest and healthiest of them all? Is it the Border Collie, with its elegant coat and affectionate personality? Or is it the English Bulldog with its burly frame and gentle disposition?
Imagine you’re standing on the rocky, rust-pink surface of Mars. You’ve just finished a hard day’s work helping to build the first human base on another planet, so you decide to take a break and watch the sunset. As you gaze west across the Martian desert, a small, wan sun sinks through the hazy, orange-brown sky. The light wanes, and the temperature drops from a balmy daytime high of -15° F to an evening chill of -120° F (good thing you’re wearing your spacesuit). The weak wind that has been kicking up dust devils all day drops away, leaving you in a silence deeper than any quiet on Earth.
On a muggy day in June of 2018, after two and a half weeks at sea, the Research Vessel Endeavor’s crew, the science team, and I pulled into our last study site off the coast of Virginia. The weather was warm and overcast; the sea was calm. Dr. Miksis-Olds had just given the word to “pop the lander,” which meant to release the equipment anchored on the ocean floor. All us scanned the immediate vicinity, looking for the orange floats attached to the underwater microphones and other equipment. The equipment’s 20-minute journey to the surface was a waiting game we had performed successfully six other times: finding and retrieving the equipment, downloading the data it collected, and plunging the equipment back to the ocean floor to continue collecting data.
As I stood, gazing intently down near my feet, I felt the water flow past my knees. Even with my waders on, I could feel its cool relief in the summer sun. As I looked into the water, I caught a glimpse of a dark, circular shape under the muddy stream bed. I reached down to grab it, and as I pulled, I realized that it was not going to budge. What I thought was a lone bike tire was actually still attached to an entire bike, buried under the muck. I called my teammate, undergraduate researcher Sam Fredrickson, over and we traced the pattern of the metal crossbars and found a place to grip. With our combined effort, we pulled the frame free from under the layers of mud that had accumulated over it.
Fire is one of the most destructive forces that can wreak havoc on our communities. Forest fires and house fires threaten tenants, destroy sentimental belongings, and ruin everything in their wake. Although we typically view large fires as unruly and harmful beasts, there is one case in which fire actually rejuvenates the environment: prairie burning. Continue reading “The Science of Prairie Burning”
Halfway across the Earth, nestled deep within the Indonesian archipelago, lie two small, tropical islands unlike any others on the planet. From the United States, it takes at least three planes, a boat, and a couple of days to get there. By the time you dock at the main pier on one of these islands, you realize that you’ve stepped foot into an entirely different world. There is no technology – no cell service, no internet, no cars; not even paved roads. It’s just you, a guide, and the wilderness around you.Continue reading “On a Small Island in Indonesia: The Last Dragons on Earth”
Summer in Illinois can feel unbearably hot, but how hot is that exactly? At 80ºF, Illinoisans can be found enjoying the sunshine and the reprieve from our winters. At 100ºF, Chicagoans complain incessantly as cautionary heat warnings show up on billboards. But what about, 200ºF? Or 1000ºF? These are the real extreme temperatures, and they are so hot that they literally melt rocks. Believe it or not, parts of our very own planet heat up to these temperatures. Continue reading “Liquid Rocks and Where to Find Them”
Have you ever wanted to build a suit that gives you superhuman capabilities? What would you do if you could store energy in the fabric of your clothes or had gloves with extra sticky fingertips that could help you climb buildings? What if you had special silverware that told you the ingredients in a suspicious looking meal, or nail polish that changed color based on the presence of an air contaminant? Continue reading “Be a Superhero with Biomimicry”
For those of us here in Illinois, the end of January this year was mind-blowingly frigid. Wind chills dipped as low as minus 50-60 degrees Fahrenheit in parts of the upper Midwest, and in Chicago it was not much warmer than that. In fact, temperatures that week were substantially colder in the states along the Great Lakes than in the world’s northernmost permanent settlements on the island of Spitsbergen in Norway, where daylight will be returning this month for the first time since October. Whenever temperatures get lower than normal here in the US, there are many people (our president included) who question the existence of climate change. Continue reading “Why Chicago Set Records with Another Polar Vortex”
Last year, my friends and I went hiking in the awe-inspiring mountains in Denver, Colorado. The five of us are all active people, but certainly not elite athletes. As we left the car and glanced out at the beginning of the trail, I thought, “That’s barely a mild incline; this will be easy.” We grabbed our water bottles and set out for the first peak. But scarcely halfway to the first resting point, I began to gasp for air. I willed my quadriceps to keep pushing up the trail, but each step left me weary and feeling weak. “How could I possible be this out of shape?” I wondered. After training as a ballet dancer for 20+ years, I had considered myself reasonably physically fit, but this mountain was showing me otherwise. Continue reading “Gasping for Air in the Colorado Rockies”
You may have noticed signs that say “Don’t feed the ducks!” when walking in local parks with ponds or lakes. While you may be tempted to feed the cute wild animals, you generally understand why you shouldn’t. One of the problems with feeding wild animals is that they become dependent on humans for their food. Another problem is that they can overpopulate places that humans frequent, like your local duck pond. It’s easy to resist throwing some crackers out for ducks or squirrels, but have you ever thought about how your daily actions might be feeding organisms so small you can’t even see them, leading to toxic algal blooms? Continue reading “Never Mind the Ducks: Don’t Feed the Microbes!”
Our planet is home to a diverse array of habitats. These can range from cozy, nutrient-rich, temperature-controlled havens to deadly, gruesome battlegrounds where only the fittest survive. Each habitat, no matter how extreme, serves as home to millions of microbes. For instance, the microbes in our bodies are only happy at a balmy 98.6 °F. They live a cozy life, feasting on food scraps and dead cells in and on our bodies. However, not all microbes live in such luxury. Continue reading “Living the Good Life in Uninhabitable Surroundings: How Microbes Adapt to Extreme Environments”
At 7:15 AM ET on Friday, September 14, 2018, Hurricane Florence made landfall along the coast of North Carolina as a Category 1 storm. Although, by this point, it had weakened from its peak intensity as a Category 4 hurricane, Florence still inundated communities in the region with torrential rains and a sizeable storm surge before dissipating over the east coast within a few days. Despite its monopoly over the airwaves in September, however, Florence was only one of four storms in the Atlantic at the time of landfall (the other three being tropical storms Helene, Isaac, and Joyce). Meanwhile, Tropical Storm Olivia (which was a Category 4 storm at peak intensity) had just dumped copious quantities of rain over Hawaii, and Typhoon Mangkhut in the west Pacific was still threatening populations in southeast Asia. In October, Hurricane Michael made landfall over the Florida panhandle with wind speeds only 2 mph shy of a Category 5 rating, making it the most powerful hurricane to hit the US since Andrew in 1992. How could so many terrible storms develop in such a short time span? Does climate change have anything to do with this? To figure that out, we first need to learn about what hurricanes are and how they form. Here’s an overview:Continue reading “Does Climate Change Make Hurricanes Stronger?”
Picture an animal that can live anywhere: hot springs to solid ice, mountaintops to the deepest sea levels, spanning a temperature range of -458 °F to 302 °F. Imagine that this animal can survive in outer space, live through global mass extinctions, and persist for 30 years without food or water. Sounds like science fiction? Well, these animals are real, and they’re known as tardigrades.Continue reading “Tardigrades: The Animals That Defy Nature”
According to a common piece of folklore, you swallowed eight spiders in your sleep last year. Urban legend or not, the very thought of spiders crawling into your mouth while you slumber likely triggers many unpleasant sensations, from mild discomfort to outright repulsion. After all, insects and spiders are gross critters that belong outside in the dirt, not inside our home. And certainly, not inside our mouths while we sleep.
What draws us to science? Oftentimes science gives us a glimpse of the vast workings of the natural world, showing us the enormity of the system in which we live and, if we peek inside, all the spinning cogs and gears that work together and allow that system to exist at all. Those insights make our hearts skip a beat and our hair stand on end with excitement and awe. It feels profound, and we are humbled by the thought that, even if just for a moment, we have grasped an idea that is so much bigger than ourselves. The humility grows more once we realize that our lives here on Earth are minuscule compared to the vast complexity of the universe. Continue reading “What Draws Us to Science?”