fantastic-beasts-science

Fantastic Beasts and the Science Behind Them

Growing up reading Harry Potter, my favorite parts of the series weren’t the coming of age stories, nor the magical spells, nor the combat and adventure. Instead I obsessed over the mythical science, potions, and creatures. I was captivated by the Harry Potter companion book Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and wondered, did such fantastic creatures exist in our world?

We tend to think that all parts of the map that were once labelled “Here be dragons” are free from mysteries. True magic may not exist, but there are still beasts at the corners of the world with abilities so magical that scientists have not yet entirely figured them out. Let’s take a look at five entries in a modern-day muggle edition of Newt Scamander’s encyclopedia.

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The Rogue Geo-engineer

Photo of iron sulfate dumping off the coast of Canada from http://phys.org/news/2012-10-canadian-knew-sea-fertilizing.html

In the summer of 2012, scientist and entrepreneur Russ George sailed purposefully past the coast of Vancouver to the archipelago of Haida Gwaii. There, he proceeded to dump 100 tons of iron sulfate into 10,000 square miles of ocean.

The Haida Indians had given him their blessing. George was the director of the Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation, and the Haida Indians were told that this iron would fertilize the plankton, a valuable feedstock for the native salmon. But George’s intentions went beyond fish farming: adding iron would allow swarms of plankton to blossom, which would draw down massive amounts of carbon dioxide. Russ George claimed to have found a solution for amending the starving salmon population and mitigating the rising concentration of greenhouse gases in one fell swoop.

Most experts, however, were infuriated.

Since then, George has become an infamous case of the dangerous line between ingenuity and recklessness. Supporters argue that such drastic measures may be needed in the future unless we somehow reduce our greenhouse gas emission. But most scientists and policymakers argue that his hasty deed had no scientific merit, and could cause irreversible damage to the ocean environment.

How could an experiment with such good intentions have gone so wrong?
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A jumping spider leaps towards its prey – a tethered fly

Six ways a jumping spider is cooler than your cat

There’s a hairy beast out on the prowl. It spots its prey from a distance, stalks along the forest floor, and pounces with a mighty flying leap. It then proceeds to suck its prey dry.

This animal is, of course, a tiny jumping spider.

You may not be used to thinking of spiders as strategic hunters, but jumping spiders have cat-like talents, bundled in package smaller than a dime. Take a look at how these spiders make your house cat look like an amateur hunter.

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Seeing Isn’t Believing

Quick – which of these lines is longer?

If you're reading this, you're taking too long to answer the question.

If you’re reading this, you’re taking too long to answer the question.

If you said the one on the right, congratulations! You’re wrong, of course, but your brain is working perfectly well. This is an example of an optical illusion, an image specifically created to trick your brain. You probably saw a lot of these as a kid, and you may have even thought they were fun. I know I did. I remember finding optical illusions in books, learning about the trick, and then quizzing classmates about them (I was a strange kid). I got satisfaction from knowing the trick to the picture, especially when others couldn’t see the illusion.

Once I got through graduate school, though, I realized that there are a lot of times where knowing the trick just brings up more questions. For example, let’s look at those lines again:

If you're reading this, you're taking too long to answer the question.

Yup, still lines.

The right one still looks longer, right? But we absolutely know that these lines are the same length! That’s why, to me, the big question is this:

Why does the illusion still work, even after we know the trick?

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A Case About Probiotics

Erin Andrews is sold on probiotics.  Are you?

Erin Andrews is sold on probiotics. Are you?

 
Erin Andrews is trying to sell me probiotics.1 She is walking through a bustling gym wearing a sharp blazer and a fresh blow out. Male patrons gawk. She bubbles that the euphoric powers of probiotics can improve digestion and immunity. She takes probiotics, and she has grown tall, healthy, and has a sweet gig interviewing football players. And now every gym member is clamoring to get a slice of that probiotic pie.

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The Metamorphosis of Biology: Now You See Me, Now You Don’t

Figure 1: Even I am grossed out enough by this picture to reconsider the merits of the weasel.  Figure from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Donnola_vs_lepre.JPG

Figure 1: Even I am grossed out enough by this picture to reconsider the merits of the weasel. Figure from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Donnola_vs_lepre.JPG

 
In fourth grade, my classmates and I were assigned a project. We were to research our favorite animal at the local library, and give a presentation on this animal to the rest of the class. When it was time for our presentations, most of my classmates excitedly gabbed about lions, tigers, humpback whales, or dolphins. I went in front of the class to present my favorite animal, the weasel.

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Thoughts From a Sea Urchin Meeting: Part 5

This is the final part of my series documenting my time at the Developmental Biology of Sea Urchins conference in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Previous entries: Introduction, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.
 

Part 5: Lessons Learned and Coming Home

8:00 AM

All we have to do now is wait for our shuttle back to the airport. Around me there are all sorts of scientists who look just how I feel: Tired and ready to go home for some relaxation, but also anxious and ready to get back into the lab and work on some of the ideas that they got from the conference. A number of them also look like they have hangovers that could slay the most alcohol-tolerant of English dockworkers. So, you know, a pretty successful week, overall. I had a great time at the conference. It was very interesting, but also quite a bit of work for me. Even after two years of working on this system, there is just so much more to know about how sea urchins grow and develop. It can be a bit overwhelming, but I know that if other people here can understand it, then in the future I can too. I hope that next time I have a talk to give, because it really seems like talking to these people about my work would be extremely exciting and rewarding.

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