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:

Laser capture microdissection: the best use of lasers this side of the Death Star.
“Laser capture microdissection: the best use of lasers this side of the Death Star.”

The problem with biology is, it’s messy.

You can open up some animal or person — well, not you, necessarily, but a surgeon or researcher with explicit permission, which is kind of important — and pluck out something you’re interested in. A tumor that needs diagnosis, say. Or a part of the brain not behaving itself. Maybe a gall bladder, because it’s infected or malignant or the doctor has a really weird Pandora bracelet thing going on.

It’s all well and good to decide what you want to carve out. But that’s where biology goes and gets messy.

Take the tumor example. Tumors don’t ordinarily grow in nice neat little balls inside the body, just waiting to be sliced away and stored in formaldehyde or used in a macabre match of bocce. Instead, they ooze between other tissues. They spread tendrils through organs and hop from one body part to another, like some kind of inner-space kudzu. To cut out the tumor, you’ve got to cut other stuff, too. And it’s not always clear which bits are which until the globs of flesh are sliced thin, slapped on microscope slides and diagnosed by a pathologist.

Even normal tissues have the same problem. Say you’re a brain researcher, because you’re a smart cookie and a Futurama fan and you don’t want to rely on Philip J. Fry to save the universe some day. That’s kind of a weird path to a career choice, but hey, it’s your life. Who am I to judge?

Anyway, you might want to study neurons pulled from the brains of lab mice or rats. But in that same brain sample are cells of other types. Glial cells. Skull cells, if you’re a little careless with the scalpel. Liver cells, if you’re a lot careless. The point is, to identify the neurons — and just the neurons — you’ll probably have to slice the tissue up, make some slides and find them under the microscope.

The question is: then what?

For decades, scientists could go through the procedures above and figure out that this sample over here was thirty percent pure for the cells they wanted, and that sample over there was ninety percent pure. But if they wanted to study those cells — pull out DNA or RNA or proteins and see what made them tick — they had no way to get rid of the contaminating schmutz scattered around them.

That’s where laser capture microdissection, or LCM, comes in. It sounds like something Darth Vader might do to torture information out of a Wookie, but it’s not. It’s actually more of a way to get rid of blemishes and impurities in a biological sample. Like an Oil of Olay for microscope slides.

So how many scientists does it take to perform a laser capture microdissection? Three, in principle. First, some smart brave person hooks an ultraviolet or infrared laser to the controls of a microscope, so moving the field of view back and forth will burn a line through the sample. Then a very patient careful person stares into the microscope for an hour or two, twisting the controls like an ungodly-expensive Etch-A-Sketch, tracing around the parts of the sample they want to carve out.

Finally, some brilliant crazy person figures out how to get that laser-jigsawed piece off the slide to do more science. Current methods include melting wax and sticking it to the piece (fairly awesome) to using gravity to shake the piece away (more awesome) to something called a laser pressure catapult (ridiculously awesome). This last procedure involves shooting an unfocused laser at the sample, literally punching the cutout into the air with photon force. Which, again: Wookie torture. But no. Science.

So that’s laser capture microdissection. You get just the bits you want, and none of the bits you don’t. And then you can look at just the cells you like, without anything else getting in the way. It’s as easy as Photoshopping George Costanza out of a vacation pic.

Just don’t try it on a Wookie. That would not end well.

Image sources: University of Gothenburg (laser capture microdissection), (Fry and the brains), Hurtin Bombs (angry Chewy, vengeful Chewy, purr purr purr), Woosk (Costanza photobomb)

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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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· Categories: Chemistry, Physics
What I’ve Learned:

Absolute zero: where the temperature itself is strange and unusual.
“Absolute zero: where the temperature itself is strange and unusual.”

You may think you’ve experienced extreme cold. Maybe you accidentally swallowed a whole popsicle once. Or walked into a blizzard with your fly unzipped. Maybe you have a regular bridge game with Betty Draper, April Ludgate and Cruella de Vil.

That’s super. But none of those things compare with absolute zero.

Absolute zero is a theoretical state of matter in which the enthalpy and entropy of a gas are at their lowest possible values. This sounds complicated, but “entropy” and “enthalpy” just mean the amount of energy in the system, and the disorder of that system.

(I can never remember which is which, because the words sound too much alike.

I also mix up Mindy Kaling with Michael Keaton. Which makes reruns of The Office pretty confusing — and Beetlejuice ten times scarier.)

In more familiar terms, absolute zero would be -273.15° Celsius, or -459.67° Fahrenheit, either of which will shrink it right up inside you in a hurry. It’s also zero Kelvin, which is a lot easier to remember. On the other hand, it’s 288 Kelvins outside right now, which is approximately zero help in telling me whether or not I need a coat. Or to zip up my fly.

(Notice that in the Kelvin scale, there are no degrees. That’s because in extremely cold temperatures, that little circle thingy folds completely in on itself and disappears.

See? When you’re flirting with absolute zero, even the measurement units get shrinkage.)

While absolute zero isn’t physically possible to achieve — stupid sexy laws of thermodynamics — you can get pretty close. As in, trillionths of a Kelvin close. Scientists can do amazing things with window fans and ice cubes, apparently.

And when they do, spooky quantum mechanical things start happening.

One of these is superconduction, where electrical resistance in supercooled materials suddenly drops to zero. Another is superfluidity, where viscosity gives up in the cold and goes home. Weirdest of all (and sometimes superfluid) are Bose-Einstein condensates, an entirely distinct state of matter which was first predicted by Albert Einstein and a pair of surround-sound speakers.

(I kid, I kid. Bose was an amazing guy — self-taught, genius and deservedly celebrated. Maybe I should have said “first predicted by Satyendra Nath Bose and a subpar bagel chain”.

Or neither? Probably neither. Moving on.)

Oddly, it’s possible to create a system with a temperature below absolute zero. Oddlier, this system is not only “hotter” than it was before, it’s also hotter than anything else in the universe, based on the physics of heat transfer.

I’d like to tell you this is just like freezer burn. I would. But I don’t think it’s anything like freezer burn, and I have no idea how it works. (And some scientists challenge whether it’s true at all.)

Maybe science thermometers are circular, so the bottom of the scale connects back to the top? Like how some people are so ugly, they’re attractive? I don’t know. Ask an ugly quantum physicist.

So the next time you find yourself trapped in a walk-in freezer (244 Kelvins), sunbathing in Antarctica (190 Kelvins) or drifting in the cold vacuum of space (2.73 Kelvins), just remember that it could be worse. It could be absolute zero.

Well, not quite absolute zero. But really, really close.

Actual Science:
PBS / NovaAbsolute zero
New ScientistWhat happens at absolute zero?
UColorado Boulder / The Atomic LabTemperature and Absolute Zero
Science NewsHottest temperature ever measured is a negative one
MIT NewsIt’s a negative on negative absolute temperatures

Image sources: French Tribune (freezy zero), Betty Draper Looking Pissed (just what it says), Candy-Coated Razor Blades and FanPop / The Office (Mindyjuice! Mindyjuice! Mindyjuice!) and Business Insider (“Shrinkage!”)

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