Archive for the ‘ Science ’ Category

Last Call at the Oasis

By Miranda Todd


Last Call at the Oasis, a 2011 documentary directed and written by Jessica Yu, painted an alternatingly bleak and bright picture of our present and our future on planet Earth. The documentary had a wide scope of study, looking at corruption, chemicals, and the many faces of those fighting for our water, our lifeblood. It also presented some startling statistics.


The rate by which we are depleting a nonrenewable resource is startling. The movie bandied about numbers of gallons wasted, between excessive flushing of toilets and Las Vegas. That’s right, the entirety of the Las Vegas strip is pretty much a slap in the environmental face. People have always been fascinated by water, struck by its beauty, and the fountains and decorations at the Las Vegas strip are a testament to that.


Las Vegas, the movie explained, is fueled by people’s love. The frightening waste of water is a tourist attraction, and the city will continue to grow while its water sources continue to shrink. Soon it will go to small towns (like the population 150 example shown in the movie) and deplete their water, too.


At the rate we’re going, there will be no fixing our water crises—especially if places like Las Vegas go from resource to resource until the planet’s a dust bowl. So what are we trying to do, and what can we do?


People like Tyrone Hayes (American biologist and PhD) are striving to remove things like atrazine, the pesticide with horrifying side affects, from our waterways. Others, like Erin Brockovich-Ellis (famed environmental activist), are trying to help coach small towns through cancers cropping up due to damaged water. Jay Famiglietti (hydrologist) is trying to effect change on a bigger scale, with a team of researchers looking to find answers for questions and concerns over our resources.


Some states and cities such as Los Angeles are trying to build wastewater treatment plants that would change the water from our toilets into the water that we drink. While that may sound unappetizing, such great stakes require great measures. In addition, reclaimed sewage water is much cleaner on average than bottled water.


The movie’s main goal, at which it succeeded, was educating the public and showing the faces behind the environmentalist movement that is helping to save our planet. While every species goes extinct we should not, as Hayes says, help speed that along. We should make every effort to better our planet, to make new strides in insuring safer and more plentiful water supply, and conserve.


While Famiglietti said that he doubted conservation would save us, he also commented that in no way would it hurt. In fact, choosing to conserve is our only choice if we don’t want our next war to be the War of the Water. Last Call ranged from poignant to painful, and opened our eyes as to what is really going on behind closed doors.


Envision This

By Amanda Bertsch


Countless children world-wide wear contacts, don glasses, or have surgical procedures every year to correct short-sighted vision. For these children, this is merely an inconvenience. However, a recent study suggests that the ever-rising number of children with vision problems worldwide is a symptom of an underlying problem.

Myopia is the scientific name for near-sightedness, when objects far away can appear blurry or indistinct. This is caused by an elongation of the eye. When images enter the elongated eye, they resolve in front of the retina instead of being processed on the retina. If the eye is extremely elongated, this can cause other vision problems or even permanent blindness.

Countries such as China are reporting that as much as 80-90% of the middle-school age population there have myopia, and that 1/5 of these cases are serious enough to put children at risk for blindness. The number of myopia sufferers in the West is growing alarmingly fast as well.

One recent study suggests that myopia could be caused by a lack of natural sunlight. This study reported that when children were given a 40-minute outside class, there was a 10 percentage point decrease in the number of myopia cases that developed. The same decrease was confirmed at a school in Taiwan with a greater time frame.

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Chemistry is a Foreign Language

By Amanda Bertsch

Now, this is nothing against chemistry, don’t get me wrong. Chemistry is an interesting subject, very nice and all, but it simply is more language than science. The more schools try to slip it into lists of science classes, the more obvious it is that something’s missing from what students are being told.

Chemists speak chemish, and that’s the language they teach in chemistry classes. Not English, not science, but a whole new language with different rules and grammar. Chemistry classes spend chapters talking about nomenclature (that’s chemish for vocabulary terms). If that isn’t language, I don’t know what is.

The words in chemish are simple: the element symbols. Each symbol correlates directly to a substance; there are no abstracts in chemish, at least not at the simple word level. These words, however, can be conjugated into isotopes and ions and linked to form sentences or more complex words.

Na+ + Cl à NaCl. Doesn’t that speak to you, on a deep, poetic level?

Compounds form complex words—where did you think the idea of a compound word came from? English has stolen quite a bit from chemish over the centuries. The point is that you can draw out the compounds phonetically with Lewis structures.

“Chemists use these letters and words to communicate complex information all the time, showing that this is at least a synthetic language,” one anonymous science nerd remarked in a chemish-english hybrid. As nearly as the newspaper staff can ascertain, this means the anonymous party agrees. Continue reading

A Slow-Flowing Science: Debunking Science Myths

By Amanda Bertsch

Popular culture is infamous for circulating incorrect scientific ‘facts.’ These urban legends are believed by many, but they are rarely correct. We took a look at ten of the top misconceptions in science.

10. Deadly Pennies: If you drop a penny from the top of the Empire State Building, it could kill a person below, right? Wrong. The penny will only reach top speeds of about 50 mph. Although it would certainly sting, the penny would not be moving nearly fast enough to kill a person.

9. Liquid Windows: This is one you’ve probably heard before, but it bears repeating: glass is not, has never been, and will never be a slow-flowing liquid. Before the mid-1800s, window glass was mostly produced cheaply with methods that made the glass rippled and unevenly thick. The glass in that old, wavy windowpane was just as uneven when it was put in.

8. Blue blood: Veins are blue, and they carry blood, so it’s very tempting to think that deoxygenated blood is blue. However, the color of veins is just a trick of the light, and human blood is always some shade of red (or red-brown when dried).

7. Summer sun: Seasons are not determined by how close the Earth is to the Sun. This makes sense—if this was true, the hemispheres having opposite seasons would make no sense! The actual reason for the seasons is the tilt of the Earth’s axis.

6. Blind bats: Nearly everyone has heard the saying “blind as a bat”, but few people realize how incorrect this really is. Bats do often use echolocation to navigate, but essentially all bat species can see.

5. Stressing about stress: Stress actually does not play a very large role in diseases such as chronic high blood pressure and major depression. In fact, small amounts of stress can be healthy for you, although large amounts are, of course, not good. Continue reading

Squeak-Speaking Helium

By Markus Weinzinger

Inhaling helium to cause a voice change is a common party trick. However, few people understand what makes helium special. The applications of this joke are wide-reaching, popping up in surprising places.

To understand helium, one must consider densities. The air in the atmosphere is composed of about 78% nitrogen. This gas is present in daily conversations, and thus when words are spoken it sounds normal. Helium, a light noble gas, is different. Its density is several times smaller than that of the nitrogen-dominated air. This aspect of the gases proves important in the next step: sound waves.

Sound waves spawn from compressions and vibrations. Vocal cords act as the component of vibration for the sound waves of our speech. As the vibrations move out than in, they simultaneously compress and relieve gas molecules. This develops a sound wave that can be measured in wavelengths, or the distance between the individual compressions.

The densities of gases can affect the frequency and intensity of these compressions. A Scientific American article reported that because of the difference in density between nitrogen and helium, the speed sound travels differs significantly. At room temperature, nitrogen travels at a slow 344 meters a second, but helium travels almost three times that fast.

Therefore, it is the density of helium that makes it possible for a curious person to experience a new voice. However, it is also noted in the article that “the frequency remains unchanged because it is determined by the vibrating vocal cords.” The quality of the sound is based on the gas encompassing the vocal cords.

Anyone wishing to try out this activity should not take it lightly. First of all, be aware that when inhaling the helium, oxygen is replaced in the brain. This can lead to lightheadedness and possibly fainting. Steps for a safe activity from the article “Helium Voice” are as follows:

  • Don’t breathe in more than a few breaths of helium.
  • Exhale fully after each breath, then take a deep breathe of regular air.
  • Do not frequently perform this activity.
  • Don’t breathe the helium directly from a compressed canister. (Party balloons are the best choice).

The applications from this investigation are as expansive as helium gas. Would a guitarist play unearthly notes in a room filled with helium? Perhaps there could be sound synthesizers that produce different notes from a collection of gas densities. Even means for testing for different gases are a possibility.

To read more about helium, you can visit either of these sites: