Archive for the ‘ Science ’ Category

Xenobiology: Life as We Don’t Know It

By Kaleb Lyonnais

What does life require? The most common answer is carbon, water, and solar energy. Carbon is the basis of biochemistry: organic molecules are composed of functional groups bonded to carbon skeletons. Water is the solvent those molecules are dissolved in. Solar energy allows organisms to break apart and rearrange those molecules.

These work for Earth-based life, but circumstances may exclude these on other planets. To explore other options, it must be understood why carbon, water, and solar energy are important on Earth. This study is called xenobiology, and it helps the search for alien life by expanding the set of things being looked for. Continue reading

Pink Diplomas: Gender Bias in Upper-Division Math and Science

By Amanda Bertsch

This essay was written for Tri-City Prep’s Math Honors class, which asks students each spring to write a paper on a topic in mathematics.

“What are you even doing here? You belong in the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant.”

These are the words that greeted Eileen Bertsch when she went to ask her calculus TA a question. Shocked, she didn’t respond, walking away without the answer to her query (Bertsch). The year was 1980.

Almost a century after the first women graduated from engineering programs, she was facing some of the same blunt rejection that these pioneering women engineers struggled through. As a freshman in college, she was hearing the same sexist rhetoric that had persisted for decades, still as sharply obvious as ever. Her calculus TA, while a particularly blatant example of why women are underrepresented in engineering, was only one of a series of challenges she and her sister Patricia Haslach would face as they earned engineering degrees. Continue reading

Misconceptions about Brains, Part 2: why super-villains waste a lot of money on mind control

A common belief about the human brain is that memories are stored perfectly. People expect each memory to be encoded in neurons as if they were recorded with a camera. In fact, human memory is unreliable.

Humans have three types of memory: short-term, long-term, and functional. Functional memory includes skills, but does not help remember the act of learning the skills. Short-term memory, which lasts around 15 minutes at most, has the most detail. Most information is filtered out and discarded during the transfer to long-term memory.

Since long-term memory lacks so many details, it is mutable. Every time a memory is accessed, it can be altered by filling in missing details incorrectly. A person may fill in gaps by guessing what probably happened. If they are telling a story they may adjust details, not to lie, but to emphasize something other than what they were focusing on at the time.

An example of how memory can be completely incorrect can be found by asking people if they saw clowns one day. Assuming that they did not see clowns, they will answer “no”. If they are asked again a few days later, they will remember something about clowns, but forget the negative (that they did NOT see clowns), and will be tricked into remembering clowns.

Psychologist Elizabeth Loftus called this the misinformation effect. In her research into eyewitness testimony, she discovered that leading questions can trick witnesses into remembering false information. Even open-ended questions which are not usually called leading can change a person’s memory by asking them about details they did not originally notice. Since the human brain excels at pattern-matching, people are more likely to fill in the blanks to finish the pattern than admit, even to themselves, that they didn’t notice something.

Further research by Loftus discovered that repressed memories are not real. People who claim to have such memories of childhood trauma did not uncover the memories with the help of a psychologist, but instead the psychologist planted them by asking leading questions. The psychologists in these cases believe that they are following a lead into the repressed memories, but in fact there is no evidence that the brain has a mechanism to repress memories at all.

Admittedly memory storage is poorly understood, but all evidence so far suggests that most information from human sensory organs are discarded; either it is never stored or it degrades with time. Reversible amnesia occurs when the retrieval mechanism is damaged, but there is no plausible way this can be caused by the trauma associated with the memory (unless it was the memory of receiving a traumatic brain injury). Once a memory itself is gone, it cannot be un-repressed. It is gone.

Another misconception revolving around memory is that each memory is stored in a specific neuron, perhaps in a specific molecule. It is possible that memories are stored in molecules, but neurobiologists currently know more about how memories are not stored than how they are.

First, although storing memories is localized to the hippocampus, after they are stored memories are “located” throughout the brain. This was discovered when epilepsy patients had their hippocampuses removed, resulting in a lack of new memories being stored but not in a loss of existing memories. (It also reduced their seizures, which is why they had had the surgery; technically the operation was successful.) Further studies found other places where memories were stored, but these were many and spread apart.

Second, although the exact medium for storing memories is unknown, the idea of one-to-one correspondence between memory and events has been refuted. As part of the brain’s habit of pattern-matching to fill in blanks, similar memories are frequently combined, resulting in two unrelated events being remembered as a single, complex event, or sometimes in a detail from one event being associated with another.

Third, memories are never stored in a single neuron. This was confirmed by a rather simple discovery: neurons die and regrow regularly, albeit at a much slower rate than other cells (the hippocampus produces 700 new cells per day while stomach cells are all replaced every few days). If memories were contained in individual neurons, long-term memory would last a few years.

In popular culture and science fiction, villains commonly use dangerous surgery or advanced technology to remove incriminating memories in their adversaries. With today’s technology, this would probably kill the patient. Slightly better technology would cause brain damage and general amnesia, since localizing memories is implausible. Doing this successfully would be absurdly difficult and expensive.

On the other hand, anyone can change someone’s memory by asking leading questions.


New Species of Hammerhead Shark Discovered

By Michael Staudt

Most new species discovered now are insects or microorganisms, often in the rich rainforest interiors. It came as a surprise, then, when a new species of hammerhead shark was discovered off the coast of Belize. On February 15th 2017, Belize Fishery departments stated that a previously unknown shark was found.

Demian Chapman, a graduate from Florida International University, had been conducting studies on the ecosystem off the coast of Belize. Fittingly enough, the scientist specializes in the identification of sharks. Dr. Chapman had been observing the migration patterns of hammerhead sharks when he discovered the specimen. Continue reading

Esoteric Programming Languages

By Amanda Bertsch

Generally, programming languages are created to do something useful. HTML and CSS are used to design webpages. Java makes applets. BASIC creates games. Some languages, however, serve little or no purpose and are known as esoteric programming languages. They’re created by people who are very interested in programming and not very interested in having a life outside programming, and are subsequently some of the funniest in-jokes on the web. This article breaks down five of the greatest (almost completely useless) languages.

  1. Ook!
Ook code

A section of the “Hello World” program in Ook!

Ook! is one of a number of programming languages based on the charming BF, an early esoteric language with only eight commands. Ook! is different because it is specifically designed for orangutans to code. (Yes, orangutans.) Ook! has three different programming elements: Ook., Ook!, and Ook?. They are sorted into groups of two to create eight distinct commands.




The “Hello World” program in LOLCODE prints “Hai world!” to the output screen.

Picture a 12-year-old in 2007. Picture how they typed. Then imagine that one of those 12-year-olds could create a programming language. The result would look something like LOLCODE, a language designed to look as similar to the deliberate misspellings of the “lolcat” meme. Words such as “liek” and “hai” are common in source code of this language.


  1. Malbolge
Malbolge code

The “Hello World” program in Malbolge. Yes, that is code.

Imagine you were having a really bad day, and you wanted to make sure everyone around you was having an equally terrible one. That’s essentially the principle behind Malbolge, a programming language specifically designed to be as difficult as possible to actually use. A series of complicated rules makes Malbolge code look like a pile of gibberish, even when written correctly. Only a few programs have been successfully written in this beast of a language, despite its existing for decades.

  1. Piet
Piet code

The “Hello World” program in Piet is a beautiful image.

Aspiring artists, never fear! There’s a programming language for the visually minded. Piet is coded entirely in 20 different colorations of pixels. 18 of these colors are related on a color cycle, and a series of complex operations is used to translate the pictures created into program outputs.





  1. Shakespeare
Shakespeare code

A small section of the extensive “Hello World” program in Shakespeare.

Perhaps the most literary of all programming languages, Shakespeare is designed to read like a Shakespeare play. All variables are Shakespeare characters, whose values are increased or decreased by various “positive” or “negative” nouns (adjectives function as multipliers). Shakespeare has several ways to say just about anything, allowing programs to be nearly as variable and just as lengthy as the original plays.





Interested in more of these elaborate languages? Check out Esolang, a wiki dedicated to esoteric programming languages.