Join High Touch High Tech in celebrating World Soil Day December 5th, 2020
of science is in soil? What is soil? So many questions…
Soil is a
material composed of five ingredients — minerals, organic plant matter,
living organisms, gas, and water. Are their soil scientists? Of
soil scientists do? A soil scientist is a person who is
qualified to evaluate and interpret soils and soil-related
data for the purpose of understanding soil resources as they
contribute to not only agricultural production, but as they affect
environmental quality and as they are managed for protection of human health
and the environment. WOW, soil scientists definitely play a key role in
protecting our health and environment.
to me that Soil is pretty easy to ignore. We might notice it when gardening or
playing outdoors. But even when we forget about it, soil is always there,
Most of what we see are mineral particles that we recognize as sand, silt, or clay. There is also plenty of water and air. But soil is also alive. It contains countless fungi and microbes. They help recycle dead and decaying matter by breaking down the remains of plants, animals, and other organisms. What if we could put on really cool goggles to see inside the soil, we would see an incredible microscopic world of fungi and bacteria? We need to talk about the bacteria in soil because they perform an incredible function. These bacteria are said to be symbiotic and are real helpers to the plants. These bacteria can convert nitrogen to ammonia, which the plants utilize for their development.
While soil science is fascinating, why are we talking about it now? Because World Soil Day is December 5, 2020. How do we celebrate World Soil Day, you might ask? The motto for World Soil Day is Keep soil alive and protect soil biodiversity! Plants nurture a whole world of creatures in the soil, that in return feed and protect the plants. This diverse community of living organisms keeps the soil healthy and fertile. This vast world constitutes soil biodiversity and determines the main biogeochemical processes that make life possible on Earth.
out soil is a living resource, home to more than 25% of our planet’s
biodiversity. Interestingly, up to 90% of living organisms live or spend part
of their lifecycle in soils.
you take a break and go outside, or maybe spend a few minutes in your backyard,
reach down and take a good look at the soil. If you have a magnifying glass,
bring it outside with you. When you look at the soil use your imagination and
think about how many microorganisms there are in the soil, and how remarkably
busy they all are!
One way to
celebrate World Soil Day is to provide your soil with rich nutrients like those
found in compost! Check out our at-home science experiment, Compost in a Cup!
Grab your supplies & celebrate soil!
Join High Touch High Tech in celebrating Red Planet Day November 28th!
Who’s ready to go on a mission to Mars? If you are like me, you have already been on a mission to Mars, thanks to the classic ride at Disney World. Mission to Mars was an attraction located in Tomorrowland at Disneyland and at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom. I remember being on this ride as a child in the 1970’s. As you entered Mission to Mars, you were greeted first with a control room, featuring then cutting-edge animatronic figures that talked about what the first crewed mission to Mars would be like. While footage ran on screens, a robotic scientist talked about things like “the way crystals form in zero-G.” After that you were ushered into a circular theater that looked a lot like the inside of a modern airplane. Side screens showed the diagnostics associated with the trip, including how far away you were from earth and how close you were to the red planet. Narration would play about the nature of the voyage, with phrases like “Mars acquisition velocity” and “hyperspace penetration commencing”. Dangers like meteors and black holes were detected and barely avoided. There were also references to how this kind of space travel was “routine” but back in the 1970’s and 1980’s seemed like science fiction.
Let’s fast forward to 2020!
The SpaceX Mars & Beyond program has
a robust plan to facilitate the eventual colonization of Mars. Is this
even a real possibility?
It took billions of years for Earth to
become a hospitable planet for humans and I think you would agree we’ve been
very comfortable living on earth. So why travel to Mars? Because it’s the red
planet in our night sky! Because it’s there! To paraphrase President John F.
Kennedy, we want to go to Mars, not because it is easy, but because it is hard!
The program includes fully reusable
launch vehicles, human rated space craft, on orbit propellant tankers, raid
turnaround, launch and landing mounts, and local production of rocket fuel on
Mars via in situ resource utilization (ISRU). SpaceX and Elon Musk have named
2024 as their goal for an un-crewed mission, with a crewed mission to follow
A key element of the program is the SpaceX
starship, a fully reusable super heavy lift launch vehicle under development
since 2018. To achieve a large payload, the spacecraft would first enter Earth’s
orbit after launch, where it is expected to be refueled before it departs to
Mars. After landing on Mars, the spacecraft would be loaded with locally
produced propellants to return to Earth. The expected payload for the Starship
launch vehicle is between 100–150 tonnes (220,000–330,000 lbs.).
SpaceX intends to concentrate its
resources on the transportation part of the Mars colonization project,
including the design of a plant based propellant utilizing the Sabatier
process that will be deployed on Mars to synthesize methane and
liquid oxygen as rocket propellants from the local supply of atmospheric
carbon dioxide and ground-accessible water & ice. Sound like
It’s an ambitious plan! Any successful
colonization would ultimately require involvement from many more economic
participants, whether individuals, companies, or governments—to facilitate the
growth of the human presence on Mars.
Here are some compelling reasons why this
plan is a good idea:
1. Enhanced national prestige, national
security, and economic vitality
2. Technological leadership and the development
of new technologies for non-space applications
3. New scientific discoveries not obtainable
from robotic missions to Mars
4. To inspire both the American public and the
next generation of scientist, technologist, engineer, and mathematician (STEM)
Some have suggested other reasons for colonizing
the Red Planet that are more catastrophic in nature, including Mars as a safe
haven for the survival of the human species and as a possible solution to the
exponential population explosion on our planet.
The trip will
take about nine months each way with a stay time on the surface of Mars of
several hundred days. The long length of the mission will provide an excellent
opportunity to engage the public and inspire students to pursue STEM-related
professions, products, and industries. We last witnessed a significant increase
in students studying STEM following the launch of Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957.
Why Mars? Scientists
think that early Mars was more hospitable and more Earth-like than present-day
Mars. Early Mars most probably possessed an atmosphere considerably denser than
its present-day atmosphere. The surface of present-day Mars is devoid of liquid
water. However, photographs of Mars from orbit and from the surface suggest
that early in its history Mars possessed abundant and widespread surface liquid
water in the form of lakes, rivers, and even planetary-scale oceans.
Why humans? Humans have unique capabilities for
performing scientific measurements, observations, and sample collecting. The attributes
needed for exploration and scientific discovery include intelligence,
adaptability, agility, dexterity, cognition, patience, and problem solving in
real-time. We possess the abilities to adapt to new and unexpected situations
in new and strange environments. With state-of-the-art scientific equipment and
instrumentation brought from Earth, the increased laboratory ability on Mars would
allow for dramatically more scientific return. Exploration of Mars would be
performed as a synergistic partnership between humans and robotic probes where
probes could traverse great distances/terrain too risky for human exploration.
However, the most exciting role for the human explorer/scientist is just beginning as we start the greatest adventure in human history, the human exploration of the Solar System starting with the Red Planet.
At Home Experiment:
The surface of present-day Mars is devoid of liquid
water. But if humans were to colonize the planet, water would be critical. Much
of the fresh water on Earth is contained in aquifers. Aquifers are layers of
soil, gravel, sand, and rock beneath the Earth’s crust. The water in aquifers
has been there for thousands of years. Check out our at-home experiment and
make your very own water aquifer – you never know, it may come in handy if you
ever find yourself on Mars! https://sciencemadefun.net/downloads/WaterAquifer.pdf
They grow, but they’re not alive. For centuries they’ve been
used in witchcraft and wizardry, yet they are also so integral to science that
they have been the key to revealing the molecular makeup of all of life! What are these marvelous, ancient, modern,
magical, scientific treasures?!
We’re talking about those magnificent minerals, GEMSTONES!
Even in our “jaded” modern world, holding a handful of beautiful, multicolored, sparkling gems is a pleasure that is unparalleled. When you look at the gorgeous variety of colors and shapes of gemstones, it’s easy to see why every ancient culture on earth revered them for their beauty and saw mysterious magical powers within. Even though humans and gemstones have a long and storied history together, that is only a small part of why gemstones are truly one of nature’s most incredible creations. Far beyond their visual appeal, they are amazing right down to a molecular level and have actually been the key to some of the most momentous discoveries in the history of science!
The scientific study of the structure of gems and crystals is called crystallography. Humans have been trying to understand the intriguingly standard patterns of crystal shapes since at least ancient Greece, when they theorized that crystal gemstones were water that had frozen and could not go back to its liquid state. Their word for it, krystallos, gives us our word today. For centuries, gemstones did not reveal the mysteries of their symmetrical, regular shapes easily. The great Johannes Kepler, fascinated by a single snowflake on his coat, pondered their symmetry in the 16th century. Soon after, Danish crystallographer Neils Stensen discovered The Law of Constancy of Angles, proving that although crystals appear in a great variety of shapes and sizes, specific types of crystals always grow in the same angles.
The stage was set for Auguste Bravais, the father of modern crystallography, who discovered that the molecular structure of crystals were arranged in perfectly uniform “lattices,” a pattern in which any point in the structure is perfectly equidistant from the point nearest to it. Bravais discovered there were only a few possible configurations of points that can make up the orderly arrangement of molecules in a crystal. Bravais’ work categorized what is known as the “seven crystal systems:” cubic, trigonal, hexagonal, tetragonal, orthorhombic, triclinic, and monoclinic. These are the seven shapes a crystal can make on a molecular level, and thus, repeats in its ultimate shape. Have you ever seen pyrite in a cube, or quartz in a point? In a cubic crystal-like pyrite, the molecules themselves form tiny repeating cubes which then create the amazingly regular, square shape of the crystal. Quartz is only ever hexagonal or trigonal, giving it its characteristic point. Once you are familiar with the seven crystal systems, the beauty of natural gems becomes even more incredible for their regularity and their symmetry. The symmetrical perfection of crystal designs over millions of years, varying geological conditions, across all of earth and even space, is something truly rare and surprising in the natural world.
Although all crystals across the world, from the famous diamond to the ultra-rare fingerite, can grow in remarkably uniform patterns, what makes all crystal gemstones different is their interaction with the conditions in their particular environment. Crystals usually form out of magma, but it is the trace elements in magma, often dissolved in groundwater, that dictate the colors and shapes of a crystal. Pressure and temperature also play a role in creating these natural works of art. For example, an emerald and a ruby both get their color from the trace element Chromium, but the difference is time and pressure. One of the most rare and costly gems on earth, Blue Tanzanite, comes from a certain mixture of pressure, temperature and the element vanadium that is found only in the East African Rift Valley of Tanzania. Whereas quartz, the most common crystal on earth, is created when silicon and oxygen, both very common elements, bond and grow in a tetragonal shape. A crystal can take only weeks to grow and a million years to come to the earth’s surface; when it emerges, it is a perfect snapshot of the complex geological processes around it.
Sci-Fi author Arthur C. Clarke said: Any sufficiently
advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Gemstones/crystals are
one of those places where science and magic meet. Crystals have been used in healing magic
since humans lived in caves. In terms of
importance to modern science, crystalline molecular structures have given us
the keys to understand nothing less than the makeup of life itself! The science of X-ray Crystallography is a relatively
recent discipline. In 1912 scientists
discovered that if they projected X-rays through a humble crystal of salt, they
could see the molecular structure of the salt crystal as a 2-D projection. They then learned to crystallize non-mineral
substances, and construct 3-D models of the projection they saw. Because of X-ray crystallography we have been
able to see, understand, and analyze:
The structure of DNA
Numerous pharmaceutical compounds, beginning
Hemoglobin and Myoglobin
Viruses such as HIV and Covid-19
The makeup of the surface of Mars (Mars Rover
has a built in X-ray crystallography unit!)
In fact, the Nobel Chemistry 2020 winners, Dr. Charpentier
and Dr. Doudna, would never have been able to do such close work on DNA without
X-ray Crystallography. Even 2020 Nobel Prize winner Roger Penrose is an avid
fan of crystal structures and took inspiration from them to revolutionize our
understanding of space itself.
If you want to collect and examine some of these incredibly
meaningful minerals for yourself, where can you start? There are over 3,000 minerals known to
science, from the famous diamond to the rarest in the world, Fingerite. Precious or semiprecious? Local stones or exotic stones from around the
world? Which of the Seven Crystal
Systems is your favorite? Which mix of minerals makes the most appealing color?
For some up-close views of fine gems and minerals:
Celebrating World Kindness Day – November 13th, 2020
Happy World Kindness Day! Do you remember how you felt the last time you experienced a “random act of kindness?” Ever had a stranger give you a compliment that made your day? When did you last give that universal little wave of thanks when another driver let you in on a busy street? Even in these challenging times, kindness is all around us, and the wonderful feeling of human connection through kindness is needed more than ever. The science of kindness is a rapidly evolving field encompassing several disciplines, and to make it even more complicated, it also touches on some of the biggest questions about ethics, morality, and what it means to be human. Where once the assumption was that humans are fundamentally competitive and selfish, more science is showing us that humans (and many non-human animals, too) may instead be fundamentally wired to be kind and compassionate. Even better, kindness can be taught, learned, and practiced daily for some amazing health benefits!
Many scientists have wrestled seriously with the question of kindness and compassion and why it exists. Charles Darwin wondered, if life was about the survival of the fittest, why then did animals sometimes act in an altruistic manner: sacrificing their own personal gain to help others, even those not related to them? Darwin’s answer was the idea of “inclusive fitness.” For example, a bee may sacrifice itself for the queen, and that sacrifice will help the entire hive to survive to reproduce. Darwin’s concept of inclusive fitness helped explain that altruism does have reason to exist, and further exploration of WHY it exists was taken up in the 1960’s by researcher Richard Dawkins. In his landmark book The Selfish Gene, he theorized that altruistic behaviors are wired into us by evolution because throwing yourself in front of a lion to protect your children helps your genes to survive, not because any inherent morality tells us to protect the weak. This is why kind behaviors are still selected for and exist today, but deep down everything we do is self-interested even if it appears kind and selfless.
For years it has been generally accepted that human kindness is a thin veneer over our animal nature, and most of animal nature is selfish and competitive. In the 21st century, there are growing numbers of scientists and thinkers who see that there is much more to the story of human kindness and compassion than once thought, and the concept of humans as fundamentally self-interested competitors may not be completely accurate. Kindness and compassion appear to have numerous health benefits, right down to the molecular level, that go far beyond mere survival.
The field of neuroscience especially has shown that our brains and bodies are deeply oriented towards kindness. Dr. Dacher Keltner, head of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkley, has shown that our brains are designed to release a burst of oxytocin, “the love hormone,” from even small acts of kindness. In fact, it has been recently proven that we have a network in our brain called “mirror cells” that literally predisposes us to empathy on the cellular level. The GGSC studies show that over time, through just one act of kindness a day, participants were able to increase their overall life satisfaction and decrease chronic pain, partly because kindness releases feel-good hormones such as dopamine and oxytocin and helps lower inflammatory hormones like cortisol. People who did Buddhist Loving-Kindness meditations for just 8 weeks, sending out unconditional love to the world each day, were even found to have longer telomeres, the part of DNA that is thought to control aging. From the results, it has been theorized that daily kindness is just as much a predictor of health as smoking, and Dr. Keltner theorizes that a life focused on kindness could increase lifespan as much as six to ten years!
Recent science has proven that kindness is one of the only things in the world that doubles when you share it: kindness releases a boost of endorphins and hormones in the giver and receiver alike! Just seven days of kind acts were seen to have a significant benefit on subjects’ stress levels, overall sense of wellbeing, and even chronic pain. How can you share in the benefits of kindness? Fortunately, researchers indicate that it can be learned and practiced just like any skill. You don’t have to do something grand like paying off your neighbor’s mortgage to get the health benefits of altruism, and you don’t have to be born a saint to be kind each day. In Dr. Keltner’s study, small things like paying off an expired meter, helping someone carry something, or even a great, genuine compliment are enough to start accruing the health benefits of kindness. The potential for kind and helpful acts is everywhere, but it’s not always easy to know what to do or how to do it. We know that your own body rewards you tremendously for being kind, just as it does when you exercise. So why not practice building your “kindness muscle” and challenge yourself for seven days? The Random Acts of Kindness Project, sponsors of World Kindness Day, have a seven day menu of small acts you can do, and many more resources for learning, teaching, and understanding the wonderful – and still mysterious — phenomenon of human kindness.
Follow the links below for suggestions and inspiration, try one kind act a day for at least a week, and see how you feel.
Congratulations to the 2020 Nobel Prize Winners! 2020’s winners show us, once again, that Science, like the universe, is ever-expanding and the potential for scientific discovery is unlimited!
Dr. Emmanuelle Charpentier and Dr. Jennifer Doudna: for the development of CRISPR-Cas9, a method for genome editing.
Charpentier and Dr. Doudna are the first team of two women ever to win the
Nobel Prize! In what has been called
“the most deserved Novel Prize of the past 20 years,” Doudna and Charpentier’s
technique of genome editing has made an absolutely massive contribution to
science, with a potential to revolutionize the entire field of the Life
Sciences. The possibility of genome editing has existed since the 1970’s, but
thanks to Charpentier and Doudna, it is now much more precise and effective, easier,
and with a greater applicability to curing genetic disease than ever
before. Using “chemical scissors” known
as Cas9, a DNA-cutting enzyme derived from bacteria, the technique can target
and snip up to a single faulty or unwanted gene, just as you would replace a
single letter in a misspelled word. New
DNA can then be inserted at the snip.
The insertion is repaired via the body’s natural rNA functions, and the
new DNA functions as normal. The
CRISPR-Cas9 technique has only existed for 8 years and has already had an
impact on agriculture and pest control.
Its potential for human medicine is enormous and a CRISPR application
has already cured a human subject of Sickle Cell Anemia. Their discovery has revolutionized the life sciences
and unleashed incredible new potential.
As colleague Fyodor Urnov puts it, “the 21st century will be the age of
CRISPR, thanks to Jennifer and Emmanuelle.”
Dr. Roger Penrose: for
the discovery that black hole formation is a robust prediction of the general
theory of relativity
Dr. Reinhard Genzel and Dr. Andrea
Ghez: for the discovery of a supermassive compact object
at the center of our galaxy
The prize for physics this year is for the proof that there is a supermassive black hole in the center of the Milky Way Galaxy. This discovery is spectacular in itself, but all the more amazing for the fact that it was 60 years in the making! In the 1960’s Oxford physicist Roger Penrose and his colleague Stephen Hawking used the mathematics of Einstein’s theory of relativity to predict that Black Holes inevitably exist and should be found at the center of every galaxy. This impressive theoretical proof of black holes was so comprehensive it also reinforced the overall feasibility of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, first expressed in 1907. In a stunning demonstration of how scientific discoveries are constantly built upon the legacies of those that came before, Penrose first proved the theoretical existence of black holes in the 20th century. When the telescopic technology to measure them finally caught up to Penrose’s ideas, Dr. Genzel and Dr. Ghez were able to observe and conclusively prove that black holes existed in the 21st century! Genzel first and then Ghez, building on the previous work, used high powered telescopes in Chile and Hawai’i to carefully observe the motions of stars over several years. Their careful observations and calculations prove that there is a massive dark object in the milky way with millions of times more mass than the sun, a.k.a., a black hole. Thanks to these three scientists’ generations of work, we now know beyond any doubt that black holes exist, and they are at the center of every galaxy.
Dr. Harvey J. Alter, Dr. Charles M. Rice, and Dr. Michael Houghton:
for the discovery of the Hepatitis C virus
In a year marked by a global viral pandemic, the fact that the Nobel Prize in Medicine went to a trio of virologists highlights how important scientific research is to public health. The three virologists made a massive contribution to the lives and futures of people all over the world with their discovery of the Hepatitis C virus, which affects 71 million people worldwide and kills 400,000 people a year. Dr. Alter, Dr. Rice, and Dr. Houghton’s discoveries allowed for targeted vaccines, treatments, and now, a total cure. Alter, working from the NIH in America, helped discover the Hepatitis B virus in the 1960’s. But after that discovery, he was confounded by the fact that there was still another unknown disease-causing agent that resulted in hepatitis, especially after blood transfusions. This unknown form of chronic, blood-borne hepatitis debilitated patients for years before it killed them, and represented a serious global health problem, particularly for vulnerable people in need of transfusions and blood-based treatments. In work that demonstrates the highly collaborative nature of science today, the three scientists all provided an essential piece of the solution. Alter was able to demonstrate that what he called Hepatitis C was a virus, Houghton used an untested strategy to isolate the genome of the virus, and Rice provided the evidence that the virus was the cause of Hepatitis C. Thanks to these three scientists, the millions of people worldwide affected by Hepatitis C now have a chance to be free of this terrible disease.