On persevering in the face of failure



This is kinda a big deal, everyone. I got paid to write at From Quarks to Quasars, a popular science news site. My first post went up yesterday.

Scientists at Rothamstead Research, an agricultural research group in the UK, have published the results of their years-long study on genetic modification of wheat plants, despite setbacks from anti-GMO protesters.

The researchers were attempting to introduce genes into the wheat genome that would repel aphids, one of the insects that plague wheat crops. They borrowed DNA from other plant species, such as peppermint, that naturally produce a chemical signal that mimics pheromones used to signal danger (specifically, aphid pheromones). Their hope was that, by creating wheat that produced these pheromones, the wheat would repel the aphids without the use of chemical insecticides.

The scientists were hoping that the GM wheat would repel the aphids, but it didn’t work. Now, there are already anti-GMO sites calling the experiment a failure and a waste of taxpayer money. It is this attitude I want to address here.

It is a massive mistake to treat any scientific experiment that returns an unexpected result as a failure. Science, at its heart, is about trial and error. This experiment was a trial, and it ended in an error. But that doesn’t mean that the science is useless, or that we learned nothing from it.

Science is built on a foundation of failing, learning, and trying again. Thomas Edison once said, “I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.” On our quest to go to the moon, three people died, right at the beginning of the Apollo Program. But if we had stopped then, where would we be now?

Just because the GM wheat trial didn’t produce the results the researchers were expecting doesn’t mean the trial itself was a waste of time or money. We learned things about wheat, aphids, and genetic modification that we didn’t know before, and that information will help the researchers to be more successful next time. Maybe we won’t get the results we want on the next trial, or the one after that, but if we keep trying different approaches eventually we’ll find one that will work. And any future success will be gained by persevering in the face of failure, not by giving up the first time something goes wrong.

To those naysayers who want us to quit now, you don’t have the right mindset. You look at this trial and see failure, while scientists look at it and see future success. That attitude of relentless optimism in the face of hardship got us to the moon, and it’ll get us aphid-resistant wheat, too. It’s just a matter of time.

You can read the rest of my post here.


Support America’s Sextronauts!



Have you ever wanted to see sex happen in space? Have you ever wanted to give people money to make it happen? Well you’re in luck! The good folks at PornHub have just started an Indiegogo campaign to fund the very first zero-gravity adult film. They say that, with $3.4 million, they can send two sextronauts and a film crew into orbit inside a space shuttle. The campaign has been active for less than two days, and has already received over $15,000 in donations.

If you’re excited about a space porn, you should consider donating to them. But, if you’re like me, and you’re less excited about what will inevitably be a really awkward tangle of limbs, you should still donate. Why?

First of all, this is pretty groundbreaking. We’ve reached the point where making a space porn is actually possible. For a few million dollars, we can send several people into space for at least as long as it takes to have sex. That’s a pretty great accomplishment. Way to go, humanity! Being able to celebrate that accomplishment by watching the most expensive sex tape ever made is the least we deserve, and you can help make that happen.

Second, going to space is still rather difficult. It still costs a few million dollars to send people into space. The more people we can put into space, though, the faster those costs go down. Which means, supporting these sextronauts increases your chances of going to space yourself one day. And isn’t that worth a couple bucks? I think so.

Third, people are going to live in space someday, if we don’t kill ourselves first. Which means we’re going to have to learn all the skills that come with living in space, including sex. The more practice we get, the better off we’ll be. This video will help us understand some of the pitfalls that come with getting it on in zero-g. Experts seem to agree that space sex is difficult at best, and according to NASA, the agency has never actually done sex studies in space, so we need all the help we can get.

At the end of the day, this film will probably be mediocre at best. But there are other reasons to support this project besides wanting to watch a good porn. If you feel the same way, donate to their Indiegogo. Millions of horny space geeks (and a few scientists) will thank you.

Water Does Spin in Opposite Directions in Different Hemispheres



Today, a landmark was reached in the field of YouTube science. I’m talking, of course, about the collaborative effort by Destin Sandlin of Smarter Every Day and Derek Mueller of Veritasium, to test whether water actually does drain the opposite direction in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres.

It’s a bit of an urban legend that draining water swirls counterclockwise in the Northern Hemisphere and clockwise in the Southern Hemisphere. The idea is that the rotation of the Earth imparts a force (called the Coriolis Force) that causes this. Unfortunately, it’s not true. The Coriolis Force is very real, but it’s much too small to have an effect on your sink drain. It’s overwhelmed by other, larger effects like the shape of the basin and the way the water was poured.

However, Destin and Derek ran an experiment to actually observe the Coriolis Force by removing all of these other factors. The result is a pair of videos which are meant to be played simultaneously. If you’ve ever wanted to see the Coriolis Force in action, take a look!

I’m Back!

After a hiatus that went longer than I expected it to, I’m finally back and ready to start blogging again. If you visit the site, you’ll notice the header image has been changed to be more sciencey. I’m going to start focusing more on blogging about science and science-related stuff, because that’s what I plan to do for a career. In the meantime, you can read this post I wrote over at Teen Skepchick about gravitational wave astronomy:

To detect a gravitational wave, we measure its effect on other objects. The gravitational wave bends spacetime: it stretches it in one direction and compresses it in another. By measuring the rate of stretching and compressing, scientists can determine all sorts of things about the source of the waves. The problem is that the change is minuscule; the total amount of stretching and compressing amounts to less than a billionth of a centimeter in length, or thousands of times smaller than the size of an atom.

Enter LIGO: The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, two gigantic detectors built in Livingston, Louisiana and the Hanford site, just outside of Richland, Washington. Each is kilometers long, and designed specifically to observe the tiny changes required to gather gravitational wave data. To do this, they employ a 120-year-old technique, interferometry, in the largest way the world has ever seen.

Read the rest!


I wrote a thing!

Over at Teen Skepchick, I wrote a thing about the election:

So I want to talk about this article in Mother Jones, and how awful it is. Basically, it blames millennials for the Democrats losing so many elections. If only young people voted en masse, the article says, we could have won! It doesn’t matter how bad the candidates were, or how poorly they campaigned, or what their positions were, we could win as long as everyone (but especially millennials) blindly voted Democrat.

But instead of simply pointing fingers and blaming millennials who didn’t vote on the Democrats’ loss, Mother Jones could have stopped and asked why we didn’t vote. It’s a much more interesting question. Why didn’t millennials show up at the polls? Why do millennials seem not to care about politics? It’s not like voting patterns happen in a vacuum. There are reasons for why this year saw the lowest millennial voting rate in a decade. Instead of whining about it, Mother Jones could have tried to figure it out.

Go read the whole thing!