Science Friday: Arsenic Life Controversy + Piccard’s Solar Plane + Real Sonic Screwdriver + Commercial NASA Launch + more TrekMovie in Antarctica

Welcome back to another Antarctic edition of Science Friday. But, before you travel south, learn about why NASA’s new arsenic-based life form may not be real, hear the latest on Captain Piccard’s solar plane, and get your own sonic screwdriver. All this and more, plus last week’s Antarctica questions answered as well as some new photos.


Is NASA’s Arsenic-Based Life for Real? Or Was This a Paper That Should Not Have Been Published?
Last week, NASA announced an astrobiology finding that would “impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life.” Speculation exploded all across the internet with cries that NASA had discovered life on one of Saturn’s moons. As it turns out, a team of NASA scientists had discovered a bacterium that can grow by using arsenic instead of phosphorus, a biological first that could change the definition of life as we know it. After the release of the paper in Science, researchers including Redfield, a microbiology prof. at the University of British Columbia, began to call the work into question saying, “I was outraged at how bad the science was.” She posted a scathing review on her blog shortly after the announcement. The general arguments against the NASA team’s findings deal with bad practices in laboratory conduct, which could have contaminated the samples or lead to misleading results. Will we soon know the true story? And, when we do, will it contribute to helping us find ET?

No horta for you?

Captain Piccard Makes Progress on Solar-Powered Plane
About a year ago, we reported on Captain Piccard’s solar-powered plane, which had just made it’s maiden voyage. Swiss adventurer Bertrand Piccard (who, unfortunately, does not have a brother that owns a winery in France, nor does he straighten his uniform a lot) recently appeared at the Le Web 2010 conference to talk about his plane, Solar Impulse. The project has picked up some contributors such as Omega, Solvay, and Deutsche Bank, and is making headway on a design that can travel father than the 350 meters traveled on the first “flea hop” flight. One of the primary reasons for Piccard’s appearance at Le Web this year is to get more people on board. “If we don’t invent the future then we won’t make it to the next generation without some disaster.”

Doctor Who’s Sonic Screwdriver is Anything But Sci-Fi
Your favourite doctor could not defeat Daleks and keep the Tardis in check without his trusty, do-all sonic screwdriver. Now, ultrasonic engineers at Bristol University and The Big Bang: UK Young Scientists and Engineers Fair are uncovering how a real life version of the fictional screwdriver, which uses sonic technology to open locks and undo screws, could be created. Bruce Drinkwater, professor of ultrasonics, says the answer lies in ultrasonic sound waves. By operating the waves at frequencies way beyond the realms of human hearing, they can be used to apply forces to objects. Just another example of life imitating sci-fi. My only question: where do I sign to buy one of these!?

When will we see a real life sonic screwdriver?

First SpaceX/NASA launch a success
On Wednesday SpaceX successfully tested its Falcon 9 rocket with a fully functioning Dragon capsule in a brief mission launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Base. The unmanned Dragon capsule parachuted back to Earth 3 hours after liftoff following maneuvers in orbit. This was the first test under a NASA’s new Commercial Orbital Transportation Services contract, which was set up to encourage companies to develop the technology to ship cargo to the International Space Station.

Video of SpaceX launch

TrekMovie in Antarctica: Answers to Your Questions
Last week Science Friday came to you live from Antarctica! This week, we broadcast once again from the southernmost, driest, windiest, and coldest continent on Earth. I’ll keep answering any questions you have about living and working in Antarctica, so keep sending them in via the comments below or by e-mail to kayla[at]trekmovie[dot]com. Here are some of your questions from last week:

  1. Lots of you asked about the seal trackers:
    • dmduncan asks: “How long do those poor seals go around with cameras stuck to their heads?” Answer: About 10 months
    • CaptainDonovin asks: “How exactly is the camera attached to the seal’s head & is it easily removed?” Answer: The cameras are glued to the fur of the seals, and are removed by scientists after about 10 months.
    • AJ asks: “You had to go and dig up the Borg seal, eh?” Answer: Temporarily borg seal.
  2. A couple of you also asked about Auroras, or Southern Lights:
    • Yalana Cotu asks: “Is there a southern Aurora?” Answer: Yes, it is called the Aurora Australis, or informally, the Southern Lights.
    • Sarah Stroud asks: “I hope to see more updates and pictures; especially any southern lights (auroras).” Answer: I’d love to see the southern lights, too! But, I’m here during the Austral (southern hemisphere) Summer, when we have 24-hours of daylight. Only winter-overs (people who stay on station during the winter) and those on WinFly (people who fly in at the tail end of winter) get to see Auroras.
  3. Questions about the South Pole:
    • Bob Mack asks: “I understand there are 2 south poles near the South Pole Station. One is the “real” pole, while the other is the “ceremonial pole”. Why 2 poles? Answer: The “real” pole you are referring to is the geographic south pole. The ceremonial pole is the one you often see pictures of: it’s a big chrome sphere atop a red and white striped pole, surrounded by flags of the countries that take part in the Antarctic treaty. The best reason I can find for there being two poles is that the geographic pole actually has to be restaked every year. This is not becuase of the Earth’s axis moving, but because the entire south pole station sits atop a moving ice sheet. The ceremonial pole is conveniently located close to the station and is a nice set-up for photo ops.
  4. I even got some questions about my research, which I am always delighted to talk about:
    • Jeff Haas asks: “Where are you working on your PhD, and what’s the subject/area of research? What have you done prior to working on your PhD, and what do you plan on doing afterwards?” Answer: I am working on my PhD at the University of Cambridge in the UK. I am currently conducting field work on Mount Erebus, Antarctica. My field is geology (or more specifically, volcanology and petrology). Mount Erebus is a very unique active volcano that hosts one of only three persistent lava lakes in the world. I am studying how we can link volcanic gas emissions (which are plentiful at Erebus) to processes deep in the magmatic system (several kilometers below the surface of the Earth). Prior to working on my PhD, I got a B.S. in Geological Sciences from Arizona State University in Tempe, AZ. I worked for three years under the supervision of Dr. Gordon Moore in an experimental petrology laboratory. It was there that I met my current PhD advisor, as I had a year-long project working with Erebus lavas, which I presented at the annual AGU conference last year. After obtaining my PhD, I plan to stay in academia. My goal is to become a research scientists/professor in the university circuit.
  5. I’ve also been getting lots of questions about day-to-day life down here:
    • Jeff Haas asks: “You have an internet connection down there? How does it work?” Answer: Yes, we have fully-connected internet down here, even at our base camp on the volcano. It is supplied by satellite and our IP address is routed through Denver (although sometimes my computer thinks I’m in Berkely, CA… go figure?”
    • Amber asks: “So, you are sleeping in a tent; what do you do if you have to use the bathroom?? Especially in the middle of the night!” Answer: If you have to pee in the middle of the night and you don’t want to gear up and walk down to the bathroom, you can use your US Antarctic Program supplied “pee bottle” (aka a nalgene bottle). You are not allowed to “expel of human waste” just anywhere out here, as you can in the woods when camping. Due to environmental reasons, plus the fact that McMurdo uses snow ice as a water source, you have to bottle up and store all waste — including pee.
    • Brandon asks: “Do you have showers in the hut [on the volcano]?” Answer: Nope. No showering for me for about a month.

Team member Aaron practicing self-arrest techniques with Mount Erebus in the background.

Me sitting on a rock just after a large cloud rolled in

Some of the group enjoying a game of “Volcanic Disaster”

Antarctic Picture of the Week: Ice Tower Ridge Panorama
A glorious view at one of my favorite spots in Antarctica: Ice Tower Ridge. In the foreground are three large ice towers formed by hot volcanic gas coming up through the ice on the flanks of Mount Erebus, which is chugging away in the background.

Click to embiggen


If you are on Twitter, you know there are plenty of amazing people out there tweeting away. And, many of them are scientists! Every Friday I’ll be bringing you a new list of great scientists, techies, and trekkies to follow on Twitter. This week…

  • @eruptionsblog: Volcanoes! Eruptions! Magma!
  • @thinkgeek: Cool products for technophiles, geeks, and the occasional monkey.
  • @alexwitze: Contributing editor, Science News.

Science Quickies
Not enough science for you? Here’s a warp-speed look at some more science tid-bits that are worth a look.


TrekMovie’s Science Friday is an homage the the great NPR radio show Science Friday. Science Friday® is a registered service mark of ScienceFriday Inc.

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Do you ever find there are times when you just look around down there on the South Pole and think to yourself that your experience is what it will be like for future manned expeditions to other worlds – specficially Mars? It must just be a complete otherworldly experience.

simply wow. That Captain Piccard in the video looks an awful lot he could be an ancestor of Jean Luc Picard…of course i bet he just shaved his head to evoke the image of Jean Luc Picard LOL though he came out looking a little more like Shinzon.

No showering, eh? Mc Murdo seemed more glamorous in Stargate!

Are you even allowed to roll naked in the snow to get clean? Or would that be considered contaminating too?

I’m gonna row in with the above sentiments. Those photos, particularly of you on a rock in a cloud, are really otherworldly!

This is a pet wonder for me, and I know it’s silly, but;

Is the gravity appreciably stronger there? The world bulges at the equator, so the poles are ever so slightly closer to the planet core. I’m a little confused about how gravity ramps up, but since it has effect over billions of lightyears, I’m going to assume that being closer to the core means you’re deeper in the Earth’s gravitational field.

I just always feel like the gravity’s slightly different when I travel to different latitudes. It’s my imagination, I know.

@3. Bren: Gravity depends on the masses of the 2 objects attracting each other and the distance between them. It is true that gravity varies across the surface of the Earth. Where there are higher-density materials (= more mass) gravity is a little stronger. However, the effects shouldn’t be strong enough that you can sense it. You would have to use very sensitive equipment to measure the changes.
If you feel like gravity is slightly different when you travel this is probably due to other factors. It might be a different height above sea level (thinner air makes it harder to breathe) or a different climate you’re not used to.

That’s an amazing panorama! If it didn’t bear such a depressing resemblance to my driveway, I’d make it my desktop background… :D

Thanks for that shot. Instant Desktop. Thanks so much!

“Antarctic Picture of the Week: Ice Tower Ridge Panorama”

Are that clouds in the background of the picture?

I am currently completing a Batchelor of Science, majoring in Geology — rock on! I hope to travel to Antarctica as soon as possible. Those strike and dip measurements won’t record themselves!

Just wanted to tell you how much I’ve been enjoying Science Fridays! It has been, in the single raised eyebrow sense, fascinating.

Goodluck with unlocking the secrets or Mantle Mechanics

So it takes two groups of scientists to figure out, that a “sonic screwdriver” might use ultrasonic sound waves to loosen screws? – Fascinating…

Real Sonic= Do Want

@7 No, that is the steam coming from the ice towers!

@8 Rock on! Also, I think I’ve been to enough Star Trek conventions to know how to spell Mellvar.

You’re one “cool” chick.

Now I’ll have to think up better questions.

@ 11

I don’t mean the steam from the ice towers in the middle of the picture. On the left and right side of the mountain in the background, it looks like there are a lot of clouds. Like being in a plane above a field of clouds.

I just wonder, if the mountain is so high, that the clouds are below its peak or do you mean those “clouds” are also really only steam from ice towers, which aren’t visible under all those steam?

Great picture by the way! :-)


………..I Love it!…………………..LOL.

What do you miss most, Kayla?

I love these articles Kayla! thank you so much! They are so interesting to read. :) It must be so cool to be working in Antarctica!

Decloaking . . .

Thanks for the Enbiggen, Kayla. That’s the kinda stuff I was looking for.

Now, for the shot of Kayla in a bikini roasting hotdogs over the lava lake, yummy!

Stay warm (Cold is only a thing of the mind) and dry.

Recloaking. }:-D>