Why I blog, and the Office of Technology Assessment

Via a post over on the Aetiology blog (and Retrospectacle) I happened upon a survey being taking about science blogging. It got me thinking a bit about why I’m doing this – aside from the masses of screaming groupies I have.

Aside from just being fun (I like to write), I set up this particular blog as a platform to practice communicating scientific topics. It’s a skill that really isn’t emphasized much in science education as far as I can tell, and regardless of where my career may go post-graduation I’m sure the ability to articulate scientific and technical topics will be beneficial to me.

In fact, I can see two different ways I could go with a career either during or after graduate school. Obviously, I could end up employed in a capacity where I’m officially “doing” science, which could be anything from “brewmeister” to curating a culture collection to academic research to being a lab grunt. I could also see myself pursuing a policy or science communication angle as well, though. This could be anything from Public Relations for a scientific or technical company to science writing to scientific advising…which brings me to the Office of Technology Assessment.

A post over on the “Denialism Blog” at Scienceblogs.com started a stream of “Bring Back the Office of Technology Assessment” posts around the net. Now, there’s a dream job. I would personally love to have a job like that. Make an enjoyable and comfortable living from whatever talent I have at explaining scientific and technical topics, and directly and substantially benefit my country in the process? Sign me up! Of course, even when the OTA existed, it only had a small number of employees, and presumably they were all Ph.D.’s with backgrounds in science and public policy, so the odds of me getting hired there (specifically) would probably be comparatively slim. Still, I can dream, and perhaps if we luck out and my wife (a Ph.D. Geologist with a background in borehole geophysics, petroleum geology, nuclear technology, and a variety of other areas – anybody out on the East coast in the general vicinity of Washington D.C. need anybody like that?…) and I have the opportunity to move somewhere with a good “science and public policy” graduate program I may have a chance.

My personal desires aside, though, if there’s one thing the people who are supposed to be running the country seem to really need, it’s rational science and technology information. Since the disbanding of the OTA we’ve had the DMCA and the costly and predictable abuses it brought (such as DMCA lawsuits over printer ink refills and replacement garage door openers), minimally-rational ideological fights over things like stem cell research and global climate change, panic and “security theater” over technically improbable-to-impossible “terrorist” threats (like the possibility that a terrorist will blow up a plane with a “liquid bomb” made of 4 ounces of baby food and shampoo, or “blow up” the fuel depot at JFK airport) (Mayor Bloomberg’s “STFU and GBTW” style of response to the panic was a glimmer of hope to me that there was some rationality left among my fellow human beings). I will refrain from picking on Ted “Series of Tubes” Stevens other than bringing this up as another example of lack of good information for policy-setting congresspeople. All this disruptive fuss, largely over ignorance and misunderstanding, which seems to be what the Office of Technology Assessment was intended to address. I would definitely agree that the OTA or something like it appears to be an urgent need – either that or Congress should quit playing around and just formally declare a science-boosting ‘War on Science’.

There are one or two things I’d like to figure out before I start mailing letters to congresspeople and presidential candidates though. For one thing – what would be the difference between the Congressional Research Service’s Resources, Science, and Industry division? Would one group be more focussed on specific policy implications while the other deals with “just the facts”? Also, the one legitimate-sounding complaint that I’ve seen in some of the newspaper articles on the subject is that it would often take longer to come out with a report on a subject than congress had (that is, congress would end up having to assemble a law and vote on it before the reports were completed). Should whatever takes the place of the OTA be re-designed to focus more on getting quicker answers? Like, maybe, hiring a bunch more people? Including, say, eager and capable grad-students…Okay, I’ll stop begging…

More to follow on this and related topics. Oh, and advice on successfully pursuing this type of career would be welcome.

Search Queries That Came To This Site, Part 2: Odd but coherent

There have been a few queries that somehow led to this blog which weren’t actually bizarre, as such, but which were kind of unexpected…

Someone in Maryland was trying to find out “why does alcohol rub work?”, for example. The answer is, it’s a “counter-irritant”. The effect is somewhat similar to rubbing a sore spot, stretching a sore muscle, or scratching an itch. The mild “burning” of the alcohol helps deaden the soreness. Beyond that, it’s some medical/physiology-of-freakish-gigantic-multicellular-eukaryotes thing, so I’ll defer a detailed explanation to someone who’s more of an expert on such things.

Someone in New Jersey wanted to know “what does a gram of nutmeg look like”. Well, I’ve never actually measured it but I’d guess a gram of ground nutmeg is probably about half-a-teaspoon of coarse (sand-grain-sized) light-brown-and-tan bits.

Pakistan wanted “total molecules of universe”. Doesn’t everyone know this? It’s exactly 2.379×10some-really-big-number. To 4 significant figures, of course. Oh, and the last digit of pi is “3”.

Colorado (I think) consulted the oracle of Google for “Why does immersion oil work”. It’s a refraction thing. Simplistically, when light goes from one substance to another – like the glass of the slide, to your sample material, to the air, to the objective lens of the microscope – it’s direction gets bent slightly. Different substances cause a different amount of bend. The immersion oil causes less bend than air does, and when you’re operating at really high magnification, it’s important to keep as much of the light as possible getting into the lens of the microscope instead of ending up “bent” away from it. Unless I’ve badly mangled my understanding of it, this is also part of why the light in the microscope seems to get dimmer as you increase the magnification.

Possibly from Florida came a query on “Scientific How Enzymes work to get stains out of carpet”. Even more simplistically than the previous explanation: Everything wants to fall apart, but is usually too lazy to just do so, so a little bit of extra energy (the “activation energy”) needs to be added to push-start it. Enzymes are catalysts – they each make a specific kind of reaction able to happen with less activation energy. If the enzyme is good enough, you reach the point where the ordinary ambient heat supplies enough energy to get things going – like breaking down those large, ugly, dark-colored chunks of protein and stuff in stains into smaller, invisible bits.

California asked Google about “eugenol clove isolation”. I suspect that if you want some kind of extreme high purity thing, you might be better off just approaching it as an Organic Synthesis problem. Otherwise, why cut out any other components of the clove buds that may add subtle flavors to the mix? If you’re just trying to separate the clove flavor from the chunks of dried evergreen-bush-flower-buds, though, there are a few ways to do it. Eugenol’s a phenol-like compound, and it’s soluble in ethanol. Go to the local liquor store and buy some vodka or EverClear™, soak the clove buds in it for a while, and pour it off. You could conceivably also try distilling it directly from the buds, as some people do to extract perfume oils from flowers.

Luxembourg sought “+homebrew +LED +Flashlight”. If anybody’s interested in that, it deserves a separate post, but it’s pretty easy. I’ve been planning to make an infrared one to do some IR digital photography, and to modify an 8-white-LED flashlight to turn it into a UV flashlight anyway.

Somewhere in Michigan, some concerned soul wanted to know “does beer have red dye in it”? Well, I’d argue that definitely, no real beer does. It’s possible that some mass-market commercial swill does, though I suspect even then it might only happen as A)a ‘novelty’ beer (like Green beer on St. Patrick’s day) or B)places like China or any other country where there seems to be a lot of unnecessary prettification of alleged foodstuffs. Now, I’m no Rheinheitsgebot zealot or anything, but beer ought to at least be reasonably “natural”…

There were a couple of queries on why Bunsen burners work, for some reason. Well, they’re essentially just tiny little carburetors for making variable flames instead of feeding a combustion engine.

Someone in Ghana wanted to know “How to make something disappear scientifically?”. Well, you can’t. But you can change something into something else. You can’t (scientifically speaking) make water disappear, but you can turn it into a gas by heating it. You can’t make oxygen gas “disappear” but you can combine it with hydrogen so that you end up with water but no molecular oxygen gas. And so forth.

Illinois wanted advice on “what to cook when you are bored and sick”. I think it depends on what kind of sickness you’ve got and how soon you expect to recover, and whether you’re cooking because you’re bored or specifically because you want something to eat that won’t make you feel sicker. Make some yogurt. Bake some bread. Or mild ginger cookies. Or make some “Jell-O™” (or other brand of instant-flavored-gelatin, for that matter). All easy to digest stuff. Or, you could make some Pepto-Bismol™ Ice Cream

Texas wanted to know “Food science- why chill the dough”. The details depend on the context (cookies? Pie crust?) but generally it seems to be to make sure the fats in the dough stay solid. In pie crust, chilling the dough makes sure the bits of butter or lard stay chunky instead of getting spread evenly throughout the dough – when they cook and melt, this leave little areas in the dough that aren’t solid, making the crust flaky. In cookies, this might help keep the dough from flattening too quick when you cook them.

Hmmm. More of these than I realized. For tonight I’ll stop on this one: Pennsylvania was trying to find out: “what does the Giant Microbe factory look like”? I don’t actually know the answer to this one, but since the Giant Microbes headquarters looks like it’s just an office in an office building, they probably contract out to someone else to actually make the giant plush microbes. I’m guessing they probably renew their contracts every so often, and maybe shop out different runs to different factories, so there isn’t necessarily a single “Giant Microbe” factory…

I suppose that’s enough for one evening. I’ve really got to catch up on my sleep…

Search Queries That Came To This Site: Part 1 – comic relief

But first – a quick notice: I just added a “rating” bar for posts. Feel free to vote – the more feedback I get, the more likely it is that I may eventually learn to write more consistently coherent and interesting things…

At this point, this little blog seems to get most of its meager traffic (by far) from search queries. The searches have been piling up, and I figure it’s about time to do some posts to try to address those searches.

For part 1 here, I believe I’ll start with the oddball searches which often don’t seem to have anything to do with microbiology or, indeed, sometimes anything coherent at all. It’s late, and I could use some comic relief. (In Part 2 I’ll discuss some of the unexpected-but-coherent searches that led to my blog, and in Part 3 I’ll post about the kinds of microbiology searches I kind of expect to see in the logs that I’ve gotten…)

Why MSN loses to Google and Yahoo:

  • Out of the 5 whole MSN queries that have led to this site, two of them are: “mazda” and “debt”. I have no idea why. (In fairness, the other three queries were perfectly plausible microbiology-type queries).

Just plain “Huh????”

  • Someone in San Jose got here by Googling the phrase: “Type of fruit makes balloon grow bigger”
  • Someone from Nairobi(?) got here by querying “death and nuisances”
  • From a Washington State school organization of some sort: “a powder that looks slimy looking when lemon juice is added”
  • From a Toronto school network: “how does pink solution work(remove stain)”. (Actually, they may have been looking for information on Eradasol™, which is a seriously nasty-smelling detergent/solvent of some kind which does a good job of removing microbiology-type dyes from floors, countertops, fingers, etc…)
  • From the UK: “in search engine type cell a room” (Uh…what?)
  • From Indonesia: “expired of natto” (are they trying to find out when you throw away Natto instead of eating it, or people who died from eating Natto?)
  • From the Department of Education in Orange County (California, presumably): “water ballon splater”[sic]
  • From the Department of Education in Queensland, Australia: “why does this material work for the room”
  • And finally, my personal favorite from (apparently) Google itself: “iron chef cheese balloon”


  • Both New Zealand and the UK got here trying to find out about how “mushrooms are evil”. This is completely unfounded – Mushrooms are our FRIENDS.

Kinda Scary

  • From the Vancouver area: “world’s best bathrooms, microbiologically” (Ah, but best for what purpose?…)
  • I got two different queries (both from Pennsylvania?) for “eating expired jello” (Actually, as far as I know, so long as the stuff remains dried in its sealed pouches, it’s probably safe to eat almost indefinitely. I’d be a little leery of expired pre-made gelatin, though – that stuff’s a relatively simple protein mixed with lots of water and, often, sugar. Sounds like very attractive food for microbes of all kinds, including some that might make you sick…)
  • Speaking of which, someone at University of Michigan was looking for “eating expired bread spore”
  • Someone from Illinois was looking for “old interrogation room pictures”(?!) on Yahoo…
  • Someone on a military base in Ohio somehow got here looking for “solicitation can be released at least how many days”

And, perhaps scariest of all:

  • someone in Alabama had an odd search phrase: “organism +I*”

Why is this scary? Everyone remembers Isaac Asimov, who (while he was a live organism) wrote “I, Robot”, right? Well, obviously this means that a secret cabal of government agents managed to steal Asimov’s brain and upload it into a computer, thus creating a Robot Isaac Asimov (and this searcher wanted to know when Robo-Asimov would be publishing “I, Organism”.) Obviously, government “working” as well as it does, their Robo-Asimov still uses “Reverse Polish Notation”, hence the reverse-entry of “Organism I”…Okay, enough silliness for one evening. More – hopefully – tomorrow.

Sorry about the recent case of blogstipation…

So, here I am blogging from the hospital…

What? Oh, no, I’m fine, it’s just right across the street from where all of my classes are this semester, and they have a fairly decent cheap cafeteria. Plus, if I get this particular table, I can just barely get enough of a signal with my laptop’s external antenna to connect to my college network account.

Last week was spring break. Although I probably SHOULD have spent it drunk and naked, according to common wisdom, I instead spent it trying to catch up on sleep and doing a bit of culturally and educationally enlightening travel.

Aside from yesterday’s trip to the Opera, we managed to get out to visit Lehman Caves. As one might guess, I was hoping I’d get to find out something about the microbiology of the cave (in addition to ogling the impressive mineral stuff.)

As far as the microbiology goes, I was quite disappointed. One of the small books in the visitor’s center mentioned the existence of chemolithoautotrophic bacteria. In one paragraph. The entire content of which I just summarized here. Not even an identification of what kind of bacteria they are. The guide for the cave tour only knew that the bacteria in the cave were “harmless” (well, yeah, I kind of imagined they would be). There were also cyanobacteria happily if slowly growing near the lights, which nobody seemed to know too much about either.

I did get the name of the person responsible for issuing research permits – I’m seriously considering trying to make the cave one of the sites for my Senior Thesis study.

I did some other things, too, but I’ve got to pack up and head for class now. In case anyone besides my immediate family is reading this regularly (please comment if you are!) I will try to post a lot more often now – the last couple of weeks have just been a major distraction.

Actual Microbiology Post: some search queries

Before I embarass myself further trying to describe principles of Natural PhilosophyPhysics comprehensibly, I think I’ll do a post or two on things that I think I can more easily describe…

I will also remind everyone that I am merely an undergraduate, so if you happen to be speaking to a Ph.D. microbiologist and mention “some guy on the internet said…” and he or she tells you I’m full of it, I’d appreciate it if someone would tell me. (If they say “Wow, that guy’s a genius“, tell them I say “thanks” and ask if they’ve got any spare grant money or surplus equipment they could send me…)

I did some poking through the web server logs and noticed a few hits from search queries, looking for basic information about microbiology (and in particular, preparing and staining slides).

(I found it interesting that although most of the hits on this site are Mozilla Firefox, every single one of the search-engine-query hits were using Microsoft Internet Explorer. [Safari looks like it amounts to a little more than the number of MSIE hits.] Don’t know if it MEANS anything, but still interesting.)

Aside from a hit from someone looking for pictures of Gram-stained bacteria and, oddly, one person looking for information about the “No You Can’t Have (X), Not Yours” meme, here are the queries that have led to my page so far:

From somewhere in Kuwait: someone looking for “Gram (something) that stain red because”
From Toronto, Canada: “Gram Staining work”
Hopefully, I managed to explain whatever they were looking for back in my post about why the Gram Stain works.

The “Purpose of Heat-Fixing Bacteria on a Slide” query (posted about here) came from somewhere at a major technology company in Texas (and, coincidentally, today from someone at a college in Florida). And for Norfolk, Virginia (who just reached the site as I was typing this) – “Fixing” just means to keep something from moving – in this case, it means making the bacteria “stick” to the slide. Though I suspect he or she already figured that out from the previous “heat-fixing” post. On a related note, someone at a community college in Texas wanted to know “what would happen if too much heat were applied in heat-fixing”. To answer that one is (to the best of my knowledge), that it depends on how much is “too much”. Comparatively fragile bacteria like Mycobacteria would, I assume, tend to fall apart in the heat relatively easily. A bit more heat would probably fry the Gram-negative type bacteria, and a little more would finally destroy the Gram-positives (don’t quote me on this, I’m guessing here). One trick I’ve picked up is to hold the slide with my bare fingers (on the edges of the slide as far from the smear as possible) and slowly pass the slide into and out of the Bunsen burner flame until the slide gets uncomfortably hot (but stopping before it starts actually burning my fingers). That seems to do the job reasonably well.

Someone from the Fresno, California area wanted to find out how negative staining works.
A “Negative” stain is like a “negative” of a photograph – you’re staining everything BUT the bacteria on the slide (ideally). This is useful if something about the bacteria you’re looking at keeps it from being easily stained, or in particular if you want to see if the bacteria produces a capsule. If you stain the slide with India Ink, it’ll make the slide itself black, but leave a clear spot where the encapsulated (or, conceivably, any other bacteria that won’t soak up the ink) are, so you can find them. They also apparently do something similar in some kinds of electron microscopy.

Someone in New Jersey wanted to know what the purpose of “Simple Stains” were. A “Simple” stain just means you’re putting one kind of dye on the slide to color the bacteria, and you don’t really care about the color. Unlike differential stains (like the Gram stain) or a diagnostic stain (like an Endospore stain), it doesn’t really tell you anything about the bacteria other than what you can directly see in the microscope – but if the relative size, shape, and arrangement of the bacteria is all you’re interested in, a simple stain may be all you need. It doesn’t matter too much what kind of dye you use for this – I know methylene blue is a common one for this kind of thing.

Someone at a facility in Wyoming was trying to figure out what an alcohol wash did to bacterial cell walls. Presumably he got directed to this site because of my Gram Stain post. It’s probably worth mentioning that I believe the alcohol wash doesn’t actually do much to the cell wall – but it does seem to remove the outer membrane that is outside of the cell wall, if the bacteria have one.

Someone in the Chicago, Illinois area appeared to be searching for general information on choosing a dye for staining – that one probably deserves a post of its own, but I’ll try to put something together on it.

Another query was someone from the Phillipines specifically looking for an article on Schizomycetes. I just notices something about that post – I actually forgot to add one useful note about “Fission Fungi”: That’s what “Schizomycete” actually means (Greek: Schizo-: split in two -mycetes: relating to fungus). Also, for those photosynthetic bacteria (“Fission Algae”) the contemporary term was “Schizophyte”.

Finally, I find myself intensely curious about the very focussed query originating from a healthcare product company in New York, looking for information about Gram Staining of Bacillus atropheaus, specifically. Maybe Willy Bacillus has found his first fan…

Just a little over an hour…

“Just Science” blogging week starts tomorrow, which is to say, in a little over an hour where I am. Starting sometime in the next 24 hours or so, all of the participants are supposed to post at least once each day, and only about scientific topics, for the whole week. Of course, I intend to do my part.

I haven’t decided what to start with yet, though. Depending on how much time I can afford to devote to it, I may either make my ambitious attempt to, in one post, explain the workings of the entire natural world (in Grossly Oversimplified form, of course – e.g. “The Universe is Powered by Laziness“), or I may just start out with a simple post or two on staining methods or how to cheat and quickly identify the “Pseudomonas” cultures when you have to do the “Unknown” identifications in basic microbiology labs, or something like that.

If I can get through the Three Basic Observations that (I boldly claim) describe pretty much everything in the natural world, plus a Grossly Oversimplified explanation of how chemistry works (hint: it’s nothing more than the aforementioned Three Basic Observations plus electricity) then maybe I can get into things like the Electron Transport Chain, the Sulfur, Nitrogen, and Phosphorus cycles, why microbial fuel cells work, and things like that.

Any requests?

About this blog

(I’ve only got a couple more days before the start of “Just Science” week, so if I’m going to get this post up, I’d better get to it…)

Now that I’ve briefly explained who I am, here’s the bit about this blog itself.

My intended audience:
Anyone who’s interested. Okay, that’s kind of a cop-out. Essentially, I’m aiming at anyone who’s sufficiently scientifically-minded to be interested. I’m kind of assuming that if and when I’ve got enough readers to consider a “core audience”, it’ll be made up largely of interested science students, people who are inclined to read magazines like “Scientific American” or “Discover”, and just generally reasonably intelligent people with an interest in scientific matters, particularly but not only microbiology. I’m hoping that I’ll reach the point of being able to write so as to be interesting to some scientific professionals but still comprehensible to people without much of a scientific or technical background. This blog is, in part, an exercise in “public access to scientific information”, so if I write anything badly or fail to explain something, please comment and let me know.

How it works:
It’s easy: I think of something that I find interesting and that I think someone else might also find interesting, and I post something about it here. I expect to focus primarily on microbiology-related science, but a wide variety of topics might come up. I have a particular fondness for subjects that I think are underappreciated or ignored in other venues. Comments on whether or not things I bring up are interesting or boring will help guide the topics. I’ll tend to focus more on informal and hopefully pleasant to read style rather than a dry but detailed technical discussion – though wherever possible I’ll include links to that kind of information for anyone who’s interested (or perhaps thinks I’ve gotten it wrong.).
I also try to make the postings somewhat interactive – at the very least, I try to add extra information, explanations, and comments wherever I think they might be helpful or just entertaining. If you see words or phrases with thick dotted underlining, you should be able to “hover” your mouse cursor over it and get a little bit more information. I generally try to do the same with links and pictures. Maybe once in a while I’ll get bored and plant an Easter Egg or two.
Comments are welcome and encouraged, other than “spam”. What little information you’re required to give in order to comment is entirely to discourage spammers.

Really, this is mainly for personal gratification – I like to write. I like science. I’d like to share this interest, and I think scientific information would be interesting to many more people if more of it was presented in an interesting and accessible manner without making it seem otherworldly or dumbing it down to the point of uselessness. This blog is a cheap and easy way to get practice.
It’s also a cheap and easy way to get free learning for myself – I find trying to explain something helps me recognize when I don’t know something as well as I thought, helps me understand things better, and occasionally is a handy way to find out when something that I think I know is wrong.

Addendum: Yes, my Mom reads my blog. No, she does not wear combat boots. No, she does not dress me funny.

About this blog, Part 1: Me.

I thought it’d be useful to do a couple of posts explaining who I am (this post) and what I’m hoping to accomplish with this blog.

Don’t worry, I’ll try to be concise.

In a metaphorical nutshell: I’m a general-purpose nerd with a 15-year history of being a reasonably hardcore computer geek. I’m now escaping that field, and am a continuing undergraduate (at least as of right now.) who’s been painfully puttering part-time through college for many years off and on until recently – they don’t seem to make much provision for ““Non-traditional” students in US colleges. I’m now hoping to actually finish and graduate this summer – and then find an appropriate graduate program in whatever part of the country I end up in afterwards.

My area of academic interest is Environmental and Industrial (“Applied”) Microbiology. Medical microbiology, which seems to get all of the attention and funding, is somewhat interesting, but I’d rather people be able to benefit from anything I learn without having to get sick first.

In particular, at the moment I’m interested in exotic modes of respiration in prokaryotes. Or, more colloquially, fun (and preferably useful) ways of playing with live bacteria and electricity at the same time.

I’ve also got some interest in science history, public policy, writing and other forms of mass communication, public access to science, travel, food and food science, and at least casual interest in a wide variety of other areas. As such, you can generally expect that most of this blog will focus on microbiology and microbial biotechnology related topics, but will occasionally veer off in odd directions.

I also hope very much that someone besides me will get some pleasant usefulness out of this blog, so I strongly encourage comments, suggestions, corrections, and so forth.