Note (12/2015): Hi there! I'm taking some time off here to focus on other projects for a bit. As of October 2016, those other projects include a science book series for kids titled Things That Make You Go Yuck! -- available at Barnes and Noble, Amazon and (hopefully) a bookstore near you!

Co-author Jenn Dlugos and I are also doing some extremely ridiculous things over at Drinkstorm Studios, including our award-winning webseries, Magicland.

There are also a full 100 posts right here in the archives, and feel free to drop me a line at with comments, suggestions or wacky cold fusion ideas. Cheers!

· Categories: Biology
What I’ve Learned:

Kleptoplasty: the five-fingered photosynthetic discount.
“Kleptoplasty: the five-fingered photosynthetic discount.”

They say humans are what we eat. It seems to be at least figuratively true, as there are an awful lot of people who resemble walking stacks of lunch meat.

In the past, some cultures have decided to take the phrase more literally. Warrior tribesmen might eat the heart or brain of fallen foes to gain their power, strength and knowledge.

(Which frankly doesn’t seem particularly efficient. I mean, if those enemies had been smarter, stronger or more powerful, maybe they wouldn’t be the ones being served as appetizers.

I’m just saying, cannibals — maybe eat a dictionary instead. Or a rhinoceros. Think it through.)

These strategies never worked out so well for humans. But a handful of organisms actually can pick up desired traits — as opposed to love handles — from their food. These little critters basically cheat off someone else’s evolutionary paper, in a process called kleptoplasty.

Imagine for a moment you’re a lowly algal cell. Like most algae, you’re not much to look at, just a single-celled blob of schmutz bobbing in a scummy pond. Walking bologna? You wish you were walking bologna.

But you do have a couple things going for you. You’ve got a nucleus, for one. You might be able to swim around, or grow in filaments. Maybe you play a mean accordion; hey, I don’t know what sorts of hobbies algae have. But best of all, you have chloroplasts.

For those who slept through freshman plant biology — i.e., everyone — chloroplasts are little sacks of cellular goop that contain chlorophyll, which lets plants (and most algae) perform photosynthesis, or turning sunshine into energy. You and I don’t have chloroplasts, and we can’t photosynthesize, no matter how many bits of vanquished lettuce or seaweed or single-celled schmutzy algae we eat.

But a select few algae-eaters can.

Most of these chlorophyll filchers are single-celled creatures themselves, like certain dinoflagellates and ciliates. They manage to overwhelm an alga cell and break it down for energy, but they leave the chloroplasts intact. Sort of how we eat corn, and at the end of the digestive process, there’s still… corn.

But unlike corn poops, which are really only good for gross-out third grade homeroom jokes, saving those chloroplasts actually has a purpose. These swiped organelles are still functional inside the new cell, which means — for days, weeks or more — the conquering cell can now perform photosynthesis on its own. And that’s the magic of kleptoplasty.

The most complex known kleptoplastic organisms are Saccoglossan sea slugs, which are not exactly apex predators, but when you’re a smudge of algae, pretty much anything will eat you. The slugs go the extra mile and suck the algae’s chloroplasts out, storing them in digestive tract cells like a chipmunk stuffing its’ cheeks full of nuts.

So if you’re considering “practical cannibalism”, let this be a lesson: kleptoplasty is the way to go. Forget eating your enemies’ hearts or brains or gall bladders. And ditto for corn. All that stuff will get you nowhere.

What you want is to start a war with photosynthesizing pond scum, and eat all the algae you can get your hands on. If you’re lucky, maybe you’ll pick up kleptoplasty and take advantage of photosynthesis yourself. But probably, you’ll just get really, really sick.

Hey, it’s still better than eating bologna.

Image sources: Solar Sea Slug Blog (kleptoplasty), Google Image Search (walking bologna), Someecards / kantinore (“Manana, maize!”), Daily Mail UK (nutty chipmunk)

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· Categories: Physics
What I’ve Learned:

Quantum entanglement: It may be spooky -- but at least it won't stink up your ride.
“Quantum entanglement: It may be spooky — but at least it won’t stink up your ride.”

At first, quantum entanglement sounds a little complicated. Entanglement occurs when two elementary particles — electrons or photons, for instance — interact in a way that links some property of those particles together. So if you measure the spin, say, of one electron, you also know the spin of the second, no matter where in the universe that other electron has gotten itself off to. It could still be in the same test chamber. It could be in Hoboken, New Jersey. It doesn’t matter.

There’s a way of thinking about this that makes quantum entanglement seem much simpler. Like all good scientific analogies, it involves Seinfeld.

Imagine the two electrons ride together to the laboratory in Jerry’s car. Specifically, the car parked by that valet who had the really terrible B.O. The kind of funk that couldn’t be cleaned out, and attached itself to everything that came near it — like Jerry’s jacket, or Elaine’s hair.

In this scenario, you clearly only need to measure one electron. If the first particle stinks, and you know they were both in the B.O.-mobile, then the second particle is going to stink, too. Maybe the second particle took a shower. Or sprayed on Old Spice. Or flew to Paris to bathe in perfume. It doesn’t matter. You don’t escape the B.O. car stench.

The key here is that the fates of the electrons were sealed at the time they interacted. If that’s the case, the distance between the two when they’re measured isn’t relevant — they were funkified together, back on the ride to work. This idea is called a “hidden variable” theory, and it makes quantum entanglement much, much easier to understand.

It’s also completely wrong. Which is a shame, because I’ve always thought science could use more Julia Louis-Dreyfus.

Using large-scale experiments and lots of complicated Greek-letter math, physicists have proven (or nearly proven, depending on who you ask) that hidden variables are not involved in quantum entanglement. For either particle, it’s impossible to know or predict the entangled property before it’s measured. But once it’s known, the corresponding property of the other particle somehow “knows” about this measurement, and locks into place. This happens immediately — or at least, thousands of times faster than the speed of light, which is theoretically impossible.

Or was, until bizarro quantum entanglement concepts were first debated back in the ’30s by scientists like Erwin Schrodinger, Boris Podolsky, Nathan Rosen and Albert Einstein.

(Incidentally, Einstein in particular rejected the idea of quantum entanglement, calling it “spooky action at a distance”.

I’m no particle physicist, but any time you describe a theory the same way you would a guy who touches himself while he watches you across the subway car, you’re probably not a fan.)

Besides being wicked weird, quantum entanglement is a hot topic in physics these days. Entanglement is the key to quantum computing, may unlock virtually unbreakable cryptography, could be the secret to photosynthesis and might even be responsible for why time flows in one direction.

Not bad for a phenomenon that’s spookier than subway creeps, and more confusing than permanent automotive armpit stank.

Image sources: NASA Science (entangled cartoon), Abnormal Use (smelly car), Popsugar and Brookhaven National Lab (Julia Scientist-Dreyfus), Live NY Now (subway creep)

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