Friday, December 28, 2012

Notable Women in Science: Historical Astronomers


by Adrienne Roehrich, Chemistry Editor

as·tron·o·mer   [uh-stron-uh-mer] noun an expert in astronomy; a scientific observer of the celestial bodies. Origin: 1325–75; Middle English;


The women featured in this post gazed at the stars and studied celestial bodies scientifically.

Emma T.R. Williams Vyssotsky (1894-1975) is often overshadowed by her husband. In fact, she is so overshadowed that the link provided links to an article on her husband that mentioned her. She received her B.A. in mathematics from Swarthmore College in 1916, and had a career teaching math and as an actuary. She returned to school to receive her Ph.D. in astronomy from Radcliffe College in 1930. She received the Annie Jump Cannon Medal in 1946.

Her passion for mathematics led her to pursue her undergraduate degree in math. Finding positions for a woman in math was very difficult, and she longed for something more. She married a Russian astronomer, Alexander Vyssotsky, the same year she finished the requirements for her Ph.D. The degree was awarded when she was 35. She relocated to the University of Virginia to follow her husband’s career. Dr. Vyssotsky was hired as an instructor while her husband became an assistant professor. As a team, the Vyssotskys discovered dwarf stars using a special objective prism. Unfortunately, Dr. Vyssotsky suffered a disabling illness, causing her to leave the University in 1944. She was unable to return to work because a cure for her illness was unknown for 13 more years. She capped her astronomical career with a monograph written with her husband, An Investigation of Stellar Motions.

Helen W. Dodson Prince (1905-2002) was a renowned solar flare researcher. Born on the last day of the year in 1905, Helen W. Dodson received her B.A. in mathematics from Goucher College in 1927. She worked briefly as a statistician before taking her M.A. from the University of Michigan in 1932. She secured a position as an assistant professor at Wellesley College for 12 years and earned her Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of Michigan in 1934. She spent several sabbaticals at Observatories all over the world. She moved to assistant professor at Goucher College and received her Sc.D. there in 1952. Again, she moved universities to the University of Michigan and became a Professor of Astronomy there. She also was Associate Director of the McMath-Hulbert Observatory during the same years. She married Edmund Prince a little later in life. She received the Annie Jump Cannon Award and the Faculty Distinguished Achievement Award from the University of Michigan.



Even though her chosen field requiring mathematics and physics was dominated by men, Dr. Prince made the decision to pursue her talents. Her research delved into 25 Orionis and contributed to the mathematical development of radar. Her work at the McMath-Hulbert Observatory stands out especially since she was one of the few female solar astronomers at the time, her work was cutting edge, and the observatory originated as a volunteer institution before becoming a part of the university and had low expectations. Even after her tenure as Assistant Director ended, she continued research at the observatory until she retired at age 74.

Maria Mitchell (1818-1889) is considered the first woman astronomer in the U.S.A. Born on Nantucket Island, Maria Mitchell was shaped by her family’s Quaker religion, which instilled the importance of education, sensible living, and eschewing the frivolous. She had no official degrees awarded, but worked as a librarian, a computer, and a professor of astronomy and director of observatory at Vassar College. Her early love of the sky connected her to her father, who was known to captains on Nantucket Island. She would adjust chronometers in her father’s absence. She attended her father’s school, and opened her own school at age 17, using unconventional teaching methods. She studied mathematics and astronomy on her own, and learned to use a sextant, a simple reflecting telescope and a Dollard telescope.


Maria Mitchell
Her love of the sky is noted by her observance of the eclipse of 1831 and her discovery of the Comet Mitchell in 1847.  Her father’s contacts confirmed Maria’s discovery and due to a pronouncement by the King of Denmark to award a gold medal to the first discoverer of a comet by telescope, Mitchell became famous in both the U.S. and Europe. This capstone capitulated to be the first, and only for many many years, woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Using the opportunity as a chaperone to the daughter of a wealthy family, she was able to travel to Europe and meet leading astronomers and visit their observatories. After this, she began to focus on the role of women in science. When Vassar College opened, she was persuaded to take a position there to teach and perform her research. Her experimental teaching style persisted, and gained her an excellent reputation. She promoted the sisterhood of “women studying together.” She was an inspiration to her students, many of whom also became famous for their own work. Maria Mitchell was an amazing woman of science.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The World Will Not End Tomorrow

The world will not end tomorrow.

The Sun will rise on the morning of December 22 and find most of humanity still living. I can say that with a great deal of confidence, though my scientist's brain tells me I should say the world "probably" won't end tomorrow. After all, there's a tiny chance, a minuscule probability...but it's so small we don't have to worry about it, just like we don't have to worry about being struck down by a meteorite while walking down the street. It could happen, but it almost certainly won't.

My confidence comes from science. I know it sounds hokey, but it's true. There's no scientific reason—absolutely none—to think the world will end tomorrow. Yes, the world will end one day, and Earth has experienced some serious cataclysms in the past that wiped out a significant amount of life, but none of those things are going to happen tomorrow. (I'll come back to those points in a bit.) We're very good at science, after centuries of work, and the kinds of violent events that could seriously threaten us won't take us by surprise.

Why the World Won't End

So where does this stuff come from? Whose idea was it that "the end of the world will be on December 21, 2012"? The culprit, according to those who buy into the idea, is that the end of the world was predicted by the Mayas in their mythology, and codified in their calendar. However, it's pretty safe to say that the Mayas didn't really predict the end of the world, even though I don't know much about the great Mayan civilization that existed on the Yucatan peninsula in what is now Mexico from antiquity until the Spanish conquest.

See this calendar? It's being touted as a Mayan
calendar in articles about the "end of the world",
but it ain't Mayan. It's an Aztec calendar. Please
don't mix up civilizations.
The Mayas were the only people in the Americas known to have developed a complete written language, which is part of how we know a lot about them despite their destruction by the hand of European invaders. In particular, we know about their calendar, and the divisions they used. We use what's called a decimal system for numbers, based on the 10 fingers of our hands. That's why we break things up into decades (ten years) and centuries (ten decades), as well as a millennium (ten centuries). The Mayas liked different divisions of time: their b'ak'tun is approximately 394 years, and they placed a certain significance on a cycle of 13 b'ak'tuns. (I suspect the Klingon language in Star Trek borrowed some of its vocabulary from ancient Mayan.)

In the "Long Count," one version of the Mayan calendar known to us, the present world came to be on August 11, 3114 BC. That world will end at the close of the 13th b'ak'tun from that creation day, which happens to be December 21, 2012. However, there's good reason to think that the Mayas didn't believe this would be the end of all things: other calendars exist that refer to an even longer span of years, stretching thousands of years into the future!

Even more importantly, though: the Mayan cosmology (their view of the universe) was cyclic, as in many other religions. This world was not the first in this cosmology, and it won't be the last. In such a view, the true universe is eternal, and the cycles of time are a kind of divine rebooting, which don't really end anything. The end of the 13th b'ak'tun might be a transformative event in the Maya cosmology, but it's not the end of the world.

Frankly, I'm not sure why we should care even if the Mayas did believe this was the end of the world. As I said previously, there's no scientific reason to think the world will end tomorrow. But maybe you might think there's a non-scientific reason—divine intervention to wipe out the Earth, perhaps. However, I'd venture to guess that most of us don't adhere to the Mayan religion. Their gods are not the gods most people worship. The prophesied arrival on Earth of Bolon Yookte' K'Uh, the Nine-Footed God is not something central to my belief system, and probably not yours either.

In fact, millennial thinking is far more a Christian thing than it is a Mayan thing—or frankly most other religions. When people talk about the supposed end of the world tomorrow, they use the Christian terminology: Armageddon (referring to Megiddo, a place in northern Israel, named in the Book of Revelation as the site of the last battle) or the apocalypse (literally the "uncovering", when all that was hidden becomes revealed). These weren't concepts in the Mayan religion, and nothing in the Christian religion says the world will end on December 21, 2012.

The World Will End...Eventually

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
–Robert Frost
Science tells us the world won't end tomorrow. It also tells us the Mayan cosmology is wrong: time doesn't go in cycles forever. Earth began 4.5 billion years ago, and will end in about 5 billion years more—at least as a livable world, which is what counts for us. In between its beginning and end, it is defined by cycles: the length of rotation (days) and the time to travel around the Sun (years), with its associated seasons. Other cycles are pretty arbitrary: centuries and b'ak'tuns don't have any particular significance in terms of astronomical events.

The end of the world as we know it will happen in about 5 billion years, when the Sun ceases fusing hydrogen into helium in its core. When that happens, the Sun will grow into a red giant star, swallowing up Mercury and Venus. Earth probably won't be devoured, but with the Sun's surface so much closer, things will become distinctly unpleasant. It's unlikely the atmosphere or oceans could survive, meaning the end of most life. (Some microbes could probably continue to live underground. That kind of thing is a story for another day.) However, 5 billion years is a long time from now.
Could another cataclysm overtake us before that time? Yes. As you may know, about 65 million years ago, a large asteroid smashed into Earth, an event that at least helped end the reign of dinosaurs, and ushering the extinction of many other species.

Unfortunately, we can't rule out the possibility that could happen again. There are enough asteroids and comets in our Solar System that could eventually cross orbital paths with Earth; if a large specimen collided with us, it would be devastating.

However, we're talking about tomorrow. No asteroid will strike Earth on December 21: astronomers keep careful track of everything near our planet, and nothing we know of is on a collision course with Earth for the near future. Asteroids and comets are really the only things we have to worry about doing serious damage for life on Earth, but you can sleep easy tonight and tomorrow night: we're safe.

If you could somehow see the planets during
daylight hours, here's how they would
appear tomorrow at noon. There's no
alignment. (You can see this for yourself
using the free planetarium program
Stellarium.)
Some people have talked about fairly far-fetched ideas: alignments of planets, or lining up Earth, the Sun, and the center of the galaxy. The planets of the Solar System aren't aligned tomorrow—the image shows where several of them are in relation to the Sun at noon. Jupiter isn't anywhere close to the planets you see. You'd need a pretty strong imagination to say they're lined up in any way: while they do lie along a line, that's the way they always are, since they all orbit the Sun more or less in the same plane. Alignment with the galactic center is even more simple to dismiss: about once a year, the Sun appears aligned with the galactic center in the sky. And nothing happens.

Another explanation I've seen involves a mysterious planet called "Nibiru" or "Planet X," which either will collide with Earth or otherwise generate a baleful influence. Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer, has a lot about the Nibiru nonsense, so I won't repeat what he says. Suffice to say Nibiru doesn't exist: there's no evidence for it, and (surprise!) it's not anything that came from Mayan mythology to begin with, so there's no reason to associate it with a December 21 apocalypse.

A Positive Conclusion

Science, I think, is reassuring in the midst of panic. Why people like to scare themselves and others with misguided ideas of the world's end, I am not qualified to say. I don't know how many people are convinced the world will end tomorrow, compared with the number of people who are either wholly skeptical or those who might be a little worried. However, let me reassure you again: the world will not end tomorrow. We can take comfort in the knowledge that December 22 will come, 2012 will end, and a new year—a new cycle—will begin. Any remaking of the world is up to us, so rather than worrying about imaginary apocalypses, let's commit to improving the lives of those who live on our magnificent planet.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Cottoning on to genome duplications


Cotton, courtesy of the USDA.
What do electrons have to do with our ability to spin this into yarn?
Image via Wikimedia Commons.

by Chris Gunter, Science Education Editor, DXS

Plants are hard. Not in the physical way, but in the genomics way: It’s been estimated that 75% of domesticated plant genomes are polyploid, meaning they have up to 12 sets of each chromosome in every cell. This makes genome sequencing crazily difficult: Each gene segment is represented multiple times, and each one has changes between them, since these organisms multiplied their chromosomes millions of years ago.
Photo of one of the institutions involved, the HudsonAlpha Institute
for Biotechnology (and my employer), through our backyard cotton field.
Credit: Holly Ralston

Every genome sequence has errors produced along the way; it’s just a factor of the technology and the scale involved. When you are trying to read the genome of a plant and you see a nucleotide position with multiple bases supposedly reported by the sequencer at that position, how do you know what’s real and what’s error?

Enter comparative genomics. Scientists around the world are attacking this problem by sequencing as many different plants as possible and comparing the genomes to each other across evolutionary time. This week, the plant in the spotlight is cotton, or the Gossypium genus. Scientists from 10 countries collaborated to produce a draft genome sequence for Gossypium raimondii, which produces a non-spinnable variety of cotton fiber.

The cotton genome produced is much larger than other plants that have been sequenced – poplar, rice, and grapevines – and in this case 61% of its genome size comes from repetitive elements, which are also quite hard to incorporate into a genome sequence. It’s a little like putting together a multi-million piece jigsaw puzzle where over half the picture is blue sky. In the unique parts of the genome are over 37,000 genes, which is at least 10,000 more than humans.

By comparing this more complete genome sequence to other plants, the researchers can conclude that what we now know as cotton has gone through multiple transformations. At least 60 million years ago, its ancestors diverged from other plants and went through an abrupt chromosome multiplication, to have the five or six sets of chromosomes we still see today.

Then, about 5-10 million years ago, fibers with a structure that allowed them to be spinnable into yarn evolved in some cotton subgroups and not others. To investigate what makes spinnable cotton, the researchers produced some genome sequence for a number of representatives of these subgroups. Intriguingly, they saw linkage between fiber quality and a block of mitochondrial genes that had transported to the nucleus of some cotton strains. Mitochondria are the structures in the cell that take nutrient energy and package it into molecules that cells can use as an energy source.

In the case of cotton, the co-opted mitochondrial genes relate to the way cells like ours and those of plants generate those energy-containing molecules, by transport of electrons through certain enzymes (like NADH dehydrogenase for you aficionados). There is no obvious connection between the observations about electrons and the spinnability of cotton, though, leaving open the question: Can this passage of electrons from protein to protein really be involved in allowing our own ancestors to start making clothes from cotton? Now that these genome data have been released, anyone can study them for an answer.

The paper is freely available on the website of the journal Nature and is entitled “Repeated polyploidization of Gossypium genomes and the evolution of spinnable cotton fibres." 

Monday, December 17, 2012

Why a UN ban on thimerosal in vaccines would be a big mistake


By Tara Haelle, Health Editor
[This post appeared previously at Red Wine and Apple Sauce.]


Several articles published in Pediatrics today discuss an issue that could affect the protection of children everywhere from vaccine-preventable diseases. The posts center on a controversy that keeps coming up related to vaccines – the  use of thimerosal in them.

All three Pediatrics articles deal with the same thing: an international treaty drafted by the  United Nation Environmental Program's  Global Mercury Partnership to reduce mercury pollution and environmental mercury exposure across the world. Great! This is an important and valuable initiative – except for one part. As part of the treaty, the UN wants to ban the use of thimerosal, a mercury-containing preservative, used in vaccines. Not so good. The short version for why? This proposed ban threatens millions of children’s lives across the world, including children in the U.S. and in other developed countries. I’ll get to the long version in a moment.

First, the  World Health Organization and American Academy of Pediatricians (AAP) have already pushed for the thimerosal ban provision to be removed from the UN treaty. But today’s three AAP articles drive the point home. One of these provides some  historical context for why thimerosal was removed from childhood vaccines in the U.S. (as  recommended by the AAP and the U.S. Public Health Services in 1999) and in other high-income countries. The other two emphasize just how important it is – and how ethically essential it is –that the ban not be included in the UN treaty.

Here’s the back story:
A  1997 US FDA review of the mercury content in products revealed that the amount of thimerosal in childhood vaccines could, possibly theoretically, build up to exceed the EPA’s guidelines (but not the FDA’s guidelines or those of the Agency for Toxic Substances Disease Registry) on safe exposure limits for  inorganic mercury, called  methylmercury.

Methylmercury is the neurotoxin you hear about when you’re warned not to eat too much fish ( especially while pregnant). Back in 1999, scientists knew a lot about methylmercury, but they didn’t know much about  ethylmercury, the type in thimerosal. As Dr. Louis Cooper and Dr. Samuel Katz, both involved with the 1999 recommendations,  put it, “the absence of clear data for ethylmercury did not allow any assumption to be made about its safety.”

Meanwhile, debates were raging in Congress about concerns over vaccines and autism, fueled by the now-retracted and  thoroughly debunked (pdf) study by Andrew Wakefield  linking the MMR vaccine to autism. Parents were scared and confused. Media coverage was exacerbating the impression that public health officials weren’t being forthright about vaccine risks.

So, poof! All thimerosal was pulled from childhood vaccines except the multi-dose flu vaccine, since kids getting that would only get amounts below the EPA guidelines for methylmercury (even though, again, thimerosal is ETHYLmercury).

Now fast forward to today. We know a LOT more about ethylmercury: namely, that it’s not as bad as methylmercury and  sails through our bodies a lot more quickly. In fact, methylmercury’s half-life is about  seven times that of ethylmercury, which does not build up in the body like methylmercury does.
“There is no credible scientific evidence that the use of thimerosal in vaccines presents any risk to human health,” writes Dr. Katherine King in one of  today's Pediatrics articles. Dozens of studies and a massive review at the Institute of Medicine back this up.

 Thimerosal in vaccines is not a problem. But what is a problem is thimerosal’s PR image. Again, from one of  today's AAP articles: “Given the complexity of the science involved in making guidelines, the polarity between vaccine advocates and those believing their children have been harmed, the media’s attraction to controversy, and, in retrospect, inadequate follow-up education about the issues to clinicians and the general public, it is not surprising that the steps taken left misunderstanding and anxiety in the United States and concerns in the global public health community.”

Basically, they’re saying, yea, we kinda screwed up with conveying that thimerosal really IS safe after all. We wanted to be over-cautious before, and we were, and that was good, but now we’ve sorta dropped the ball on following through in letting you know that YOU HAVE NOTHING TO WORRY ABOUT with the ethylmercury in thimerosal. As Dr. Walter Orenstein  today's AAP articles, “Had the evidence that is available now been available in 1999, the policy reducing thimerosal use would likely have not been implemented. Furthermore, in 2008 the World Health Organization endorsed the use of thimerosal in vaccines.”

But apparently, the WHO’s endorsement can’t overcome thimerosal’s PR image problem in the eyes of the UN. And so the UN is short-sightedly and dangerously trying to ban thimerosal in vaccines.

Well, that just means getting rid of it in flu vaccines (many of which don’t even have thimerosal since they’re single-dose), so what’s the big deal anyway? The big deal is that not all countries got rid of thimerosal in their childhood vaccines. Many high-income countries like the U.S. did – because they could afford to be overly cautious.

But more than 120 middle- and low-income countries – including the developing countries where vaccine-preventable diseases have the highest rates of infection and death –  have continued using thimerosal-containing vaccines because the preservative allows them to make cheaper vaccines that withstand less rigorous storage without compromising safety.

Getting rid of thimerosal would mean overhauling vaccine production and storage in those countries, which the WHO estimates would cost more than  $300 million for vaccines supplied by UNICEF or the Pan American Health Organization alone. As Dr. King argues, “it is banning thimerosal that would cause an injustice to those living in low- and middle-income countries and relying on these vaccines for effective protection against many harmful infectious diseases.”

Why does this matter to people in the U.S. or in other higher income countries? Because we live in a global world. Vaccines with thimerosal are currently used to immunize about  84 million children across the world every year, saving an estimated 1.4 million lives from vaccine-preventable diseases.That also includes lives saved in developed countries, where a future outbreak could potentially be imported from other countries in which a vaccination program may have ceased following a thimerosal ban.

More simply put: If the UN forces the removal of thimerosal from vaccines, then 84 million children risk not getting vaccinated (and/or vaccinated on time) due to delays in vaccine production or due to a shortage of vaccines because of increasing costs. This, in turn, could (and likely would) mean an increase in vaccine-preventable infections, which will, in turn, kill more children worldwide and risk disease carriage to other countries.

Over and beyond the increases in vaccine-preventable infections and deaths throughout the world, a thimerosal ban in vaccines could also still pose problems for developed countries. In an emergency, as Dr. Orenstein and colleagues argue, not being able to manufacture vaccines with thimerosal could endanger lives during an epidemic if it slows down vaccine production. This proposed UN ban – and the necessity of its removal – matters.

Dr. Cooper and Dr. Katz – again, both pediatricians who were closely involved in the original 1999 decision to pull thimerosal out of vaccines – sum it up best: “The World Health Organization recommendation to delete the ban on thimerosal must be heeded or it will cause tremendous damage to current programs to protect all children from death and disability caused by vaccine-preventable diseases.”

Friday, December 14, 2012

Raising the Profile of Women in Science

By Adrienne Roehrich, Chemistry Editor


One of the goals of Double X Science is to raise the profile of women in science. When others are doing this exact same things, we like to let our readers know. Here’s a few recent efforts to expand the public’s knowledge of women scientists:

As always, we have our Notable Women in Science series. We cover women in science who have been notable historically and currently. We also have our Double Xpression series which profiles women who are into science.


The Royal Society recently had a wikipedia push for writers to start new and expand the pages of women in science. Having visited wikipedia for writing the Notable Women in Science series, I can say that the number of pages created has definitely expanded and certainly there is much more information provided on a number of women. But there are still gaps. Look for more from Double X Science on this topic in the future.

A group in the UK is making a calendar “to showcase real women doing great science.” Learn more about ScienceGRRL by visiting their website and following thier social media. The images being used in the calendar look to be scenic or portrait-style.

SpotOn provides some tools for the female scientist to promote herself and also provides links that those interested in science might be interested in following, such as twitter lists of women in science.

When researching this post, I found several sites trying to promote women in science. This site provides resources as well as 4000 years of women in science. In addition, they link to many associations dedicated to helping women in science. Geek Feminism has Wednesday Geek Woman posts every Wednesday highlighting women in STEM. The RAISE project has an on-going blog about the issues facing women in science.

Please comment: What is your favorite site working to raise the profile of women in science and why?

These views are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect or disagree with those of the DXS editorial team.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Why being a Nature editor is like riding the Knight Bus


Have you seen a picture of our science education editor, Chris Gunter (above)? She looks kinda nice, doesn't she? Would it surprise you to learn that once upon a time, she was viewed along the lines of the love child between a rock goddess and Darth Vader? Perhaps picture Grace Slick in a long black cape, glaring at you. Like this:

Via Wikimedia Commons.
Why was Chris such a badass? Because she was an editor at Nature, science's toppest-tier journal, for almost seven years, dealing with submissions in the genetics/genomics side of things. You might be surprised to learn, as Chris relates in telling about her experiences at Story Collider, which features compelling stories about science, that what sounds like an intensely precise and technical field generated "mountains of drama." In telling her tale, Chris likens her experience to riding the Knight Bus in Harry Potter, in which you're never quite sure who your seat mate will be. She writes, 
People ask me all the time what the job was like. The best analogy I’ve I found is riding the Knight Bus in Harry Potter. The Knight Bus is the magical transport full of crazy people and events, both amazingly good and scarily over the top. Similarly, I felt like I was on this magical transport that went to the wildest places, and every week I’d think, “There is absolutely no way we will get to our destination” of putting out a magazine. Yet, thanks in part to the skillful drivers on the editorial and production teams, every week we did arrive at the publication of an issue, and it was an exhilarating ride.
For more about Chris and her experiences on the Knight Bus ... er, at Nature ... read on over at Story Collider, where her story has been filed under "Stress." For good reason.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The 2013 Flame Challenge Question: What is time?




By Biology Editor Jeanne Garbarino


Last year, Alan Alda presented scientists all over the globe with a challenge: explain what a flame is to an 11 year old. This was born out of his personal experience when, at age 11, he asked his teacher what a flame was and was given a one word, and completely incomprehensible answer, "oxidation."

As a founding member of Stony Brook University's Center for Communicating Science, Alda is committed to promoting better science communication from scientists. In an effort to enhance the dialogue between scientists and the general public in a fun and meaningful way, Alda initiated the first ever The Flame Challenge competition. Much to everyone's surprise, this creative competition was a big hit, and over 800 entries were submitted (including mine!). Each entry was vetted for accuracy and then judged by entire classrooms of 11-year-olds located all over the world. The winner of the first Flame Challenge was a graduate student and father, Ben Ames, who presented the public with an incredible story and original music that thoroughly explained the concept of a flame.

Because of the success of last year's Flame Challenge, Alda has set out to do it again.  However, instead of asking the question himself, he crowdsourced the question from -- you guessed it -- actual 11-year-olds. "Last year's contest question came from a real 11-year-old: me,” Alda said. “But when I asked what a flame was at the age of 11, I was probably younger in some ways than most 11-year-olds are now. They're asking a very deep question this year. It's going to be fun to see how scientists around the world answer that one in everyday language." 

According to the press release, the Center for Communicating Science collected about 300 questions from children, ranging from “Does the universe have a known end?” and “How does the brain store all that information?” to “Why are Shetland ponies so small?” But, once the votes were counted, there was one question that reigned supreme: What is time?
















Scientists will have until March 1, 2013, to submit their answer, and this year, there will be winners selected from two categories: written and video/graphics. Once submitted, the explanations of time will be scrutinized by over 5,000 11-year-olds worldwide. The winning scientists will be rewarded with a trip to New York City and honored at a World Science Festival event on June 1, 2013. 


For more information on entering or judging the contest, or to see last year’s top entries, please visit www.FlameChallenge.org

If you are planning to enter, best of luck! I can't say that this is an easy question, and I look forward to seeing all the wonderful answers come spring. Happy sciencing!

Ben Ames award winning explanation of a flame: