Archive for the ‘science is sexy’ Category


in which our heroine acts like a real writer

January 13, 2011

As a part of applying to the AAAS Mass Media Science Fellowship, I was required to write a 750-word news story about a technical journal article.   I had a blast doing it, and it was an interesting opportunity to tackle an article that made a splash in my field back in October, which I was especially keen to do since the media that picked it up did such an abysmal job with it.  After writing this, I definitely have a little more of an idea why scientists hate science journalism so much, and why it’s not 100% fair to science journalists to trash them for it.  To break complex research down in a limited amount of space, a writer has to leave a lot of information out, and some of it will no doubt be important information.  In the article below, I had to ditch a few concepts that are absolutely crucial, and it killed me to do it.

At any rate, at the end of this exercise, I was left with what I think is a decently well-written article about an important achievement in my field.  What’s a girl to do but share it with her loyal blog stalkers, many of whom would really like to hear more about my research (research related to it, in this case)?  With no further ado….

Solar energy breakthrough: two for the price of one

Solar technology is a cornerstone of our transition to renewable energy, but traditional solar cells can never be more than about 30% efficient. New solar innovations may one day break that limit, and now a team of researchers based at the University of Wyoming has demonstrated one way that it might be done.

All solar cells operate on the same basic principle: they convert energy from sunlight into electricity. By putting a little bit of light in, we get a little bit of electricity out. It turns out that “a little bit” has an exact meaning here: both light and electricity are “quantized,” meaning they only come in specific amounts, like packages at the store. In traditional solar cells, we can use one package of light – one photon – to buy one package of electricity – one electron. This price is what ultimately sets the upper limit of 30% efficiency.

One way researchers can beat that limit is to try to change the price, which means changing the material used. In strange materials known as “quantum dots,” electricity is buy one get one free: one photon of light can buy two electrons of electricity. Unfortunately, there’s a catch: there has never been a way to extract those electrons. We can get electrons for cheap, but we can only take advantage of the deal if we never leave the store with our purchase.

In a new study published in Science, a group led by Bruce Parkinson at the University of Wyoming has found a way to change that. His team has developed a quantum dot solar cell where one photon of light can produce two electrons of electricity, and for the first time, that electricity can be collected and used outside of the cell.

Their solar cell is radically different from the familiar rooftop devices we see today, which consist of a single slice of solar material – usually silicon – connected to metal electrical leads. Instead, Parkinson’s team uses a thin slice of titanium dioxide as an electrical contact, and applies only a thin coating of the solar material, lead sulfide quantum dots. Sunlight is absorbed and converted into electricity in the quantum dots, and the electricity is then extracted through the titanium dioxide.

This solar cell design is actually nothing new. Known as “sensitized solar cells,” these devices originally used a coating of molecular dye to convert sunlight to electricity. Because good solar materials tend to be expensive, a sensitized solar cell can reduce costs by using less material than a more traditional solar cell. They also require much less energy to produce, and can be manufactured into lightweight and flexible sheets.

One of the most attractive things of all about sensitized solar cells is that the design makes it possible to separate the jobs of converting sunlight and of conducting electricity. A traditional solar cell needs a material that is a good converter and a good conductor, and these two properties are almost always in conflict. A sensitized solar cell, however, can use one material to do the conversion, and a different material to do the conduction, taking advantage of the best properties of each.

The trick to making a good sensitized cell lies in building the connection between the converting material and the conducting material. The converting material does all the real work of the solar cell, but without a good connection to the conducting material, the generated electricity can’t go anywhere and will eventually dissipate as heat. This has long been the problem for quantum dot sensitized solar cells: quantum dots offered buy one get one free prices on electricity, but lacked a good connection to the conducting material, meaning none of that cheap electricity could leave the store.

Now, Parkinson’s team has discovered how to build a good connection between lead sulfide quantum dots and titanium dioxide contacts. Using a chemical called mercaptaprionic acid as a bridge, electrons in their solar cell can cross efficiently between the lead sulfide quantum dots where they are produced into the titanium dioxide where they are collected.

Unfortunately, despite the remarkable efficiency of the quantum dots themselves, other problems make these cells less efficient overall than traditional solar cells. Huge challenges remain before the technology can be scaled up for mass production, and quantum dot sensitized solar cells have a long road ahead before they can compete with traditional technology. Regardless, Parkinson’s team has taken an important first step.


why my friends are awesome, part 245013

August 18, 2010

On a camping trip this summer (the one to the Never Summer Range), I pointed out one of the things that makes aspen so cool: the “eyes” most of them have on their trunks.

They're watching you.

Naturally, after pointing this out, the logical next step is to move on to the fact that they clone themselves, and from there to the fact that the aspen groves are considered single organisms.  Aspens are pretty cool trees.  There’s one colony somewhere that’s estimated to be 80,000 years old, and weigh about 6,000 tons, which officially makes it the oldest, biggest living thing on the planet.

Now imagine that you were hiking, were unfamiliar with all of these facts, and then have just been informed that the entire tree population bordering your current trail for hundreds of yards in either direction is in fact a single organism.  A single organism with eyes on all of their trunks.  Creepy, no?  My companion thought so, too.  So when the news picked up this study yesterday on aspen reproduction, I got this email:

Date: Tue, Aug 17, 2010 at 8:58 PM
Subject: DANGER


Like I said, why my friends are awesome, part 245013.

[P.S. It was also picked up by my favorite sci-fi blog, io9 Seeing that in concert with the alien doom-tree bit made me extra happy.]


we’ve explained existence! or, why i hate science reporting

May 17, 2010

Big news breaking today from Fermilab: they’ve observed, for the first time, a system of colliding particles that produces more matter than antimatter in a significant (1% ish) kind of way.  Well, actually, it was observed a while back, but they’ve sifted through some data and written up a paper now, which, while it hasn’t been accepted into a journal yet, has been deemed good enough to release with their name on it into the mediasphere, from which it was subsequently picked up by outlets such as the NY Times.

The story about this was linked from the Times’ home page under the heading, “Physicists Find Clue to Explain Existence.”  Huh?

Okay, okay, to give everyone some credit here, this is really big news for particle physicists, and there is a logical link between the results and the headline  — they’ve observed a definite bias towards matter over antimatter, and that bias is something that’s obvious if you look around you (you aren’t made of antimatter, and nobody’s observed any anti-galaxies out there), but that has never been explained.  Therefore, in a sense, our existence does call for an explanation, and you could say that this is a very, very, very tiny clue.  It’s inarguable as well that “Physicists find clue to explain existence” makes a way better headline than “Evidence for an anomalous like-sign dimuon charge asymmetry” (this is what the paper, which has been posted on the web prior to its official publication, is titled).  I mean, I wouldn’t read that, and I’m a physicist.  Not a particle physicist, but the point stands.

Still, it’s important to remember that this is one result, in one type of particle collision, observed at one particle accelerator, and while it’s been signed off on by presumably everyone listed as an author on the paper (which is about a two-page list), and the Fermilab press folks, it’s not even officially published in a peer-reviewed journal yet, which is what earns you the Legit Science ™ stamp.  Well, okay, this is changing, too, but that’s another blogpost for another day.

My point here is that science reporting tends to be very sensationalized, and oversimplified to a detrimental point, where the science that was actually achieved is totally steamrolled by the need to write an engaging story.  Headlines are the worst offenders.  Science writing is challenging, but it frustrates me to no end to see story after story that completely missed the point, or hid it behind the tag line that gets sold to funding agencies.    There are so many smart people on the science side, and so many smart people on the reporting side, that I feel like we have to do better.

To close on a fun note, here’s a webcomic’s insight into the science reporting process.  It needs to be posted everywhere science reporting might happen.  Thanks, SMBC!


on the americanization of mental illness

January 18, 2010

Nifty article from the NY Times Magazine recently: “The Americanization of Mental Illness.” It’s long, but it’s a fascinating read you should definitely check out if you have the time (I was at the lab, clearly doing lots and lots of science when I read it).  It’s also been all over the web since it was published last weekend, which makes me feel pretty savvy for picking it up before it ended up on blogs ranging from local newspapers’ mental health blogs to Infoshop.  And by “makes me feel pretty savvy,” I mean “makes me feel like I spend way too much time perusing the internet.”

Anyhow, the gist of the essay (taken from an upcoming book, Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche) is that American cultural dominance is doing more than putting McDonald’s restaurants in exotic locales; it’s actually affecting the way mental illness is understood, diagnosed, and treated.  The author goes through several striking examples, and proceeds into a comparison of prognosis via more traditional culture-specific ideas about illness compared to the American way of thinking about things.  For all our historic dominance in medical matters, turns out many people could perhaps be better off if they stuck with their culture’s traditional way of thinking about mental illness.  “Better off” is, of course, subjective, but he definitely raises some points that bear thinking about.

Read the rest of this entry ?


the man who couldn’t remember

December 4, 2009

This is crazy cool neuroscience. An article in the NYT talks about dissection beginning on a “famous brain.” It would be great to be considered to have a famous brain one day, but I think if it were me, I’d rather it be famous for ideas that came out of it, rather than an interesting malfunction it has.

The gist of it, if you can’t be bothered to check it out, is that this man had an experimental operation to relieve seizures, which removed part of his brain. The operation was a success — sort of. No more seizures, but no more memory, either. He completely lost his ability to form memories, or so they thought for long years.

But, over time, it turned out that he could actually form certain kinds of memories, like being able to map out the floor plan of the house where he lived, and recalling how to perform certain physical tasks. Now that he no longer needs his brain, researchers are getting to take a look at it in detail, and they hope to figure out much more than is currently understood about how memories form.

They’re starting by slicing it up into 2500 very thin slices.  If you’re morbid like me, you can even watch this process live online here.