Update: New Beginnings

goethequote

I encountered this quote late last year during a phase of self-evaluation and resolution making, and as such, it felicitously became the general motto of my ongoing Resolution. It’s a resolution that I started working on last year and one that I am slowly but surely making progress in – acting on my ideas. Action is what made this blog possible and also what drove me to start my own science podcast, both of which I have immensely enjoyed and still have a passion for. This year, however, has been a barrage of challenges that have admittedly been difficult to navigate. Particularly towards the end of 2016, it essentially put some of my projects on halt, such as this blog and the podcast. But the skies seem to have cleared and with it, I have renewed energy and opportunity to move forward.

I greatly appreciate all the support this blog and the podcast has received since their respective inceptions. The small audience both of these platforms have attracted is made up of such cool and fantastic people, some of whom I’m grateful I’ve been able to connect with via Twitter and other means. You also rekindle my energy to keep thinking and to keep acting. So this year, here’s what you can expect on here, on the podcast, and from me in general in an effort to give back to you.

  1. More blog posts on here! I’ll be continuing mini-science write-ups and also talk a bit about my academic experiences, but I’d like to know which topics tickle your particular fancy (or if you’d like to suggest new topics, as well). Do let me know your thoughts via the Twitter poll below or via email – I value your input greatly.
  2. Synapse Science is coming back! This project has admittedly been challenging, especially because my production crew is made up of just one woman (me!). But it has been more than worth it as I’ve had the unique opportunity to chat with some awesome science peeps on and off the air because of it. The format of the show is in the process of being tweaked, so while we’re gearing back up, feel free to contact me if you and/or someone you know would make for a great guest on the show!
  3. I have a few more science communication projects I’m cooking up, plus I’ll be starting up some creative work to share online, too. Once the details on those projects are more solidified and confirmed, I’ll be sure to share them with you over on my Twitter.

Lastly, I want to mention very briefly another serendipitous quote I came across during the same time last year. It’s this excerpt by Ira Glass about the seeming futility of pursuing your passions in the face of an inevitable gap between envisioned and resulting quality:

Personally, I know my work can always be better, and it can be frustrating at times to try your darndest for something that doesn’t quite have the sparkle to it that you were hoping for. But the only way to paint a masterpiece is to learn how to use a brush. The only way to finish a marathon is to learn how to make it through half a mile first. And the only way to get better at something is to start it and keep working at it. So to my fellow creators, I leave you with yet another quote for when you’re feeling the most creatively futile. Happy New Year!

“We know only too well that what we are doing is nothing more than a drop in the ocean. But if the drop were not there, the ocean would be missing something.”
― Mother Teresa

Sic itur ad astra
Alexa 🔬

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Climate Change Linked with Earlier Blossom Times & Unique Horticultural Efforts

As global temperatures continue to increase and regional climates continue to shift, the ecological communities in these impacted regions are starting to respond in kind. In particular, researchers have observed noteworthy alterations in the cyclic development and flowering (or phenology) of perennially flowering plants within the past few decades alone. More apparent shifts in phenology tend to be visible in culturally significant plants, such as cherry blossoms, which have generated an entire history and culture of blossom viewing seasons in Japan and abroad. As cherry blossom viewing seasons begin to shift with each coming year, researchers are starting to become concerned about the impact that climate change is having on an integral facet of Japanese culture.

Higher Temperatures Lead to Earlier Blooming Times

In order to understand how perennially blooming plants respond to climate change, researchers can often reference extensive records of blooming seasons, temperatures, and climate trends. While some vital information has been provided by measurements taken by the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA), other essential data has been found in the rich cultural history of Japan itself. The popularity and cultural significance of these pink and white flowering trees means that cherry blossoms have always remained a hot topic, with records of blooming times and bloom quality abound in historical royal documents and newspapers from culturally rich cities like Kyoto. Historical and cultural documents, as well as diaries ranging from the 9th to 14th centuries, have provided valuable information for climate researchers, who are able to use this data to perform a climatic reconstruction of cherry blossoms in Japan.

The Philosopher’s Path (哲学の道, Tetsugaku no michi) is one of the most popular places for cherry blossom viewing in Kyoto, Japan. (Photo credit: Japan Guide)

After looking at around 1200 years of Japanese cherry blossom history, researchers have noticed that cherry blossoms are now flowering progressively earlier than they ever did before. According to the data, a trend in earlier blossom time starts to become noticeable just around the year 1830, with more prominent early flowering happening during the 1980’s and beyond. Within the past 50 years alone, cherry blossom plants have started to flower an average of 1 week earlier than usual. Researchers suspect this trend is linked to overall trends in climate change, especially since cherry blossom flowering times are primarily influenced by temperature. Most cherry blossom breeds tend to flower in the springtime, just as colder temperatures start to transition into warmer temperatures. This response to temperature may very well be an evolutionary trait, which happens to promote plant development and prevent frost damage to the fragile flowers. Evidence of earlier blooming times may therefore indicate that temperatures are starting to increase at earlier and earlier points in the year.

While a large majority of the phenological shifts are linked to regional climatic warming, researchers estimate that at least one third of the cherry blossom changes observed in Kyoto have been linked to urbanization alone. Indeed, over 100 JMA weather stations across the country have observed an average increase in temperature over the past 50 years, with greater increases found in urban areas instead of rural areas. Current climate change estimates project that temperatures will only continue to rise in the near future, due largely to global warming and anthropogenic urbanization in Japan. In addition to its overall environmental impact, many people also worry that climate change will ultimately harm the future of cherry blossom viewing seasons and their vital role in Japanese culture.

According to data collected by the JMA, the average global surface temperature has been rising at a rate of about 0.71°C per century. (Source: Japan Meteorological Agency)

New Climate, New Flowers

In response to these concerning changes, researchers at the RIKEN Nishina Center for Accelerated-Based Science have been hard at work on a horticultural solution to combat earlier and shorter cherry blossom seasons. Back in the early 2000’s, researchers began work on the development of more durable varieties of cherry blossoms, an effort which ultimately led to the popular Nishina Otome breed. Named after Yoshio Nishina, the father of RIKEN’s accelerator, this new breed is colloquially known as the “perpetual cherry blossom”. While conventional cherry blossoms need to undergo a cold spell before they bloom in the warmer days of early spring, Nishina Otome cherry blossoms can flower entirely without this cold period, resulting in blooms that typically happen twice a year. 

The Nishina Otome cherry blossom (left) produces more blossoms than the original breed of cherry blossom (right). (Source: RIKEN Press Release 2010)

In order to generate these new breeds, researchers utilize a unique horticultural method called the heavy-ion-beam breeding technique. Perhaps the most unique element of this technique is the use of accelerators, such as RIKEN’s Ring Cyclotron, to generate heavy ion beams. Prior research in biological studies has shown that heavy ion beam irradiation can cause a double strand break in DNA, ultimately resulting in an induced deletion mutation. By applying these ion beams to plants, such as cherry blossoms, new mutant strains with potentially different properties are generated. Mutant strains that exhibit favorable qualities, such as altered color or blossoming characteristics, are then grafted and cultivated to create a new breed of cherry blossoms.

Heavy-ion breeding techniques are used to induce mutations in cherry blossom breeds. Favorable mutations are then grafted onto rootstock to create a new breed. (Source: RIKEN’s Applied Research Laboratory)

One of the earliest varieties of cherry blossoms to be generated via this novel technique was the Nishina Zao, a pale-yellow cherry blossom that was created in collaboration with JFC Ishii Farm in Japan’s Yamagata Prefecture. Since the development of the perpetual Otome blossom, researchers have experimented with even more blossom varieties, such as the Nishina Haruka and Nishina Komachi breeds. Ultimately, the production of these new cherry blossom breeds may help to counteract the phenological shifts of climate change and aid in the preservation of the historic and cultural traditions of cherry blossom viewing in Japanese culture. The methods used to achieve this preservation also hold utility beyond the production of cherry blossoms alone. Heavy-ion-breeding technology is starting to emerge as a unique Japanese horticultural technique, which can be used to develop new varieties of popular flowers and essential crops.  As the technology grows and develops on the international market, many people predict that it will bring significant environmental and economic advantages for agricultural industries around the world.


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The Biochemistry of Cherry Blossoms

Cherry blossoms in bloom at Ueno Park, 2016. Photo by Alexa Erdogan.
Cherry blossoms in bloom at Ueno Park, 2016. Photo by Alexa Erdogan.

Spring time in Tokyo simply wouldn’t be complete without the magnificent blooming of pink and white cherry blossom trees across the country.  While cherry blossoms are technically the flowers of several different types of trees belonging to the Prunus genus, the most popular kind of blossom is arguably the Japanese cherry tree (Prunus serrulataor sakura (桜 or 櫻; さくら) in Japanese.  Over 600 varieties of the cherry blossom tree exist throughout Japan, with the Yoshino cherry (Prunus x yedoensis) being one of the most popular natural hybrids in the country. As you might imagine, sakura hold a sacred place in Japanese history and culture, and the annual blooming of these flowers has generated a culture of spring cherry blossom festivals and customs (such as hanami花見). But as we sit on our picnic blankets to gaze up at the pink and white blossoms fondly, sake running through our veins, it’s important to remember that there’s more than meets the eye to these delicate flowers.

Antioxidant Properties

While the blossoms of these trees are remarkable to look at and photograph, many components of the tree itself can actually be used as ingredients in certain cultural dishes. One example is sakura-cha, or salted cherry blossom tea, which is a special type of Japanese tea traditionally served at celebratory events, such as festivals or wedding ceremonies. To prepare the tea, cherry buds must first be harvested, washed, and immersed in salt water to remove any insects still hanging out in the buds. Afterwards, the cleaned and salted cherry buds are immersed in Japanese plum vinegar (which you can get as a byproduct of pickling plums). The resulting byproduct of sakura-cha is called plum vinegar extract of cherry blossom (or Sakura-cha Ekisu), and it has much utility as a coloring and flavoring agent due to its red-purple color and sakura-like smell. In addition to making food look and smell positively delightful, this extract has also been of special interest to scientists studying its antioxidative effects.

Caffeic acid
Chemical structure of caffeic acid, a yellow solid which contains phenolic and acrylic functional groups.

Red-purple plant pigments typically contain a class of chemical compounds called polyphenols, which have been shown to exhibit antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, and antitumor activity, as well as the ability to inhibit platelet aggregations. Several studies, however, have decided to focus specifically on the antioxidant properties of these compounds, including those found in various species of cherry blossoms. Researchers who looked at one particular species (P. Iannesiana) discovered that the main antioxidant in the prepared plum vinegar extract of these cherry blossoms is an organic compound called caffeic acid. Although caffeic acid is unrelated to caffeine itself, the former can still be found in your morning cup of coffee, as well as in other foods and drinks, such as prune juice. Once the compound enters your body, it can act as a strong antioxidant and has been expected to scavenge superoxide anions and free radicals in vivo. In this study, researchers found that the plum vinegar extract of cherry blossom contained a higher caffeic acid content than does prune juice, meaning that the extract could be a viable food product and source of antioxidants. Interestingly enough, these antioxidant properties are not only specific to this one species of cherry blossoms. Additional research over the years has shown that various other species contain a variety of antioxidants, such as quercetin and glucoside. Antioxidants like these continue to be a popular topic in the health and food industry, and future research on the biochemistry of sakura blossoms may reveal even more about their ability to fight free radicals in the body.

The Question of Toxicity

The blossoms and leaves of cherry blossom trees are also directly edible, with both being used frequently as seasonal ingredients in Japanese cuisine. In addition to making sakura-cha, the blossoms and leaves can be pickled and used in sweets, such as sakuramochi. However, it may be best to hold off on having a sakura-eating competition. Many people advise against eating cherry blossom leaves in absurdly large quantities, mainly due to a substance called coumarin. Coumarin is a natural chemical compound of the benzopyrone chemical class, and it is primarily responsible for the fragrant and sweet scent found in many plants. Coumarin also has a reputation as an appetite suppressant, which may explain why some plants produce the compound as a means of discouraging animals from eating it. The compound’s bitter taste may also be a big contributor to the efficacy of plants’ defense mechanisms.

At the biochemical level, prolonged exposure to or very high doses of coumarin have been found to be moderately toxic to the liver and the kidneys of some animals. Thankfully, the human body in particular manages to metabolize the compound to one of lower toxicity, making coumarin fairly low in toxicity compared to other related compounds. Studies have shown that the median lethal dose (LD50) of coumarin is 275 mg/kg, while the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment has recommended a tolerable daily intake (TDI) of 0.1 mg of coumarin / kg of body weight – that’s about 5.9 mg of coumarin if you weigh around 59 kg (or ~130 lbs). Just as a reference, one teaspoon of cassia cinnamon powder can reportedly contain anywhere from 5.8-12.1 mg of coumarin. But don’t throw out your sakuramochi just yet – one sakura leaf does not contain enough coumarin to make you ill. That being said, it may be prudent to avoid snacking on entire kilograms of sakura leaves at any one time. Future research on the coumarin found in cherry blossom leaves may ultimately help to elucidate the role it plays in plant metabolism, as well as its concentration in the leaves and its biochemical effects.

A collection of sakuramochi (桜餅), a type of wagashi (Japanese confectionery) made of sweet pink mochi, usually filled with sweet red bean paste and wrapped in a salty pickled cherry blossom leaf.
A collection of sakuramochi (桜餅), a type of wagashi (Japanese confectionery) made of sweet pink mochi, usually filled with sweet red bean paste and wrapped in a salty pickled cherry blossom leaf.

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A Little Birdy Told Me About Gravitational Waves

In an age where information constantly flows through your digital news feeds, scientific discoveries and discussions have become ever more engaging and vibrant. Increased concurrent efforts to improve science communication have resulted in more translatable scientific advancements and concepts for the average person. Now, members of the public no longer need to stare confused at lengthy academic papers teeming with jargon when they can hop on social media and see a theoretical physicist tweeting about the main points of a new discovery or an old concept. While this kind of rapid communication has improved the way we talk about science, both new and old, the immediacy of the dissemination of information raises some interesting challenges.

Weeks before the official announcement, a little blue bird told me in 140 characters or less that gravitational waves had been detected at the LIGO facilities. While there were no tweets fluttering around from anyone directly involved with the project, a well-known theoretical physicist let loose a little tweet a month before the official press conference.

His tweet references his “earlier rumor” dating all the way back to September of last year. Naturally, the tweet caused some ripples (dare I say, waves) in the scientific community. Speculation over the validity of this statement came partially from LIGO’s history of injecting false signals into their system as a drill, with most of the researchers being blind to the test itself. Krauss, however, implied that these were not injected signals, in which case additional concern came from scientists who strongly disapproved of spreading scientific rumors, especially with regards to something as significant as gravitational waves. Many have argued that rumor spreading in science harms the scientific community by 1) taking away the rights to announcement by the scientists who have dedicated much of their life to such an endeavor, and 2) building up the potential to break public trust in the event that the rumors are not supported by scientific evidence.

Meanwhile, the teams at LIGO were more than aware of the consequences of such an early announcement and intended to wait until their paper passed through peer review and was on its way to publication in an academic journal. Their paper had not even been submitted to Physical Review Letters until January 21st, a few weeks before the official press conference. Members of the LIGO team also remained admirably tight-lipped before the announcement, especially when they were confronted with the rumors that had been teeming since last year. In an interview that took place a week before the press conference, Joe Giaime, head of the LIGO Livingstone Observatory, was asked for a response to these earlier rumors:

“We’re really kind of old school. We analyze our data. If there’s anything interesting we write it up in papers. We send the papers to the journals. If and only if there’s an interesting discovery that passes muster, and it has been accepted for publication by a journal, then we blab about it. Anything before that, you’re not going to get anything out of me.” (x)

Thanks to the LIGO team’s rigorous approach to analyzing and presenting their findings, the announcement of the detection of gravitational waves was taken seriously by both the scientific community and the general public. One can only imagine if the team had decided to make a hasty announcement based on circulating rumors and the signal had turned out to be a false alarm. Any future announcements by the LIGO team would not have had as much credibility.

These are, in fact, the chirps you’re looking for. Picture from LIGO press conference.

While the LIGO team has been commended for their diligent efforts preceding their announcement, some journalists have considered gravitational waves to be one of the worst kept secrets in science. Overall, this issue raises an important question about the place that rumors have in the scientific community and ultimately prompts a further discussion on how we approach scientific announcements as scientists and as journalists.

Any decent journalist will claim that unless there are credible sources to back up rumors or hearsay, the story is not worth reporting. Reporting the existence of rumors themselves also does not serve any real benefit, seeing as all it does is give life and exposure to mere speculation. The same holds true in scientific journalism, perhaps even more so than in general journalism. After all, science is a field centered around finding and gathering a preponderance of supporting evidence before confirming any claim, supposition, or hypothesis. It seems only natural that scientific journalism should abide by the same rules. Hearsay, speculation, and reports from “independent sources” (that have not publicly made their own announcements) do not harbor pieces of credible supporting evidence and therefore do not deserve a spotlight in the realm of scientific journalism. Spreading rumors and reporting them as possibilities fosters a real danger of destroying science’s credibility in the general public, and it diminishes the image that science has as a rigorous, logical, and objective approach to understanding our world and the universe beyond it. Finally, the act of starting and perpetuating rumors also takes away the well-earned ‘bragging rights’ of a scientific team that has devoted much of their time, energy, and experience to a project.

Imagine spending your entire life trying to listen to the cosmos only to have someone walk by your office window, take a peek at your screen the moment it shows a promising signal, and then call up every news agency within a 50 mile radius to tell them about your new discovery. All of this before you had the chance to double check that what you heard was indeed a chirp of the cosmos…and not an erroneous tweet.

Lowering the Cost of Spaceflight

“Once you get to earth orbit, you’re halfway to anywhere in the solar system.”
– Robert A. Heinlein

Heinlein’s comments on spaceflight are indicative of just how difficult it can be to reach low Earth orbit (LEO) in the first place, what with pesky gravity getting in the way. It may therefore come as no surprise that spaceflight is an expensive pursuit, with the majority of the launch cost coming from the construction of the rocket alone. The launch systems that we use to send up capsules and satellites into orbit are typically expendable, meaning that the rockets that fly them up there can only fly one time. Once the payload reaches its orbital destination, these boosters are typically discarded into the atmosphere or left to fall back into the depths of the ocean. Ultimately, this means that every time we launch a new payload up into orbit, our space agencies have to build new rocket boosters. As you might imagine, the cost very quickly adds up, making the concept of reusability an increasingly attractive idea. 

A Space Shuttle SRB being towed back after recovery in the ocean. Photo from NASA.

Reusable launch systems are not an entirely new idea, however. The Space Shuttle was actually meant to be a partially reusable vehicle with reusable solid rocket boosters and a reusable orbiter (which contained the Space Shuttle’s main engines). In theory, it was meant to be a more cost-effective solution to spaceflight costs; reusable rockets meant lowered launch costs. In practice, however, the Shuttle program became more expensive than previously envisioned due to the amount of recovery and maintenance the hardware required. It simply was not practical to spend the time and money to keep a naval force readily mobilized to haul solid rocket boosters out of the ocean and back to flight facilities and to perform extensive maintenance and inspection of the Shuttle (including each of the many thermal tiles on the orbiter itself). In order to be truly cost-effective, any kind of reusable launch system would have to be fully reusable, not partially reusable like the Shuttle program. True reusability means the ability to use the same rocket to launch payloads multiple times into suborbital and/or orbital flight, which in turn means less time and money spent on building new rocket boosters for each launch. While this approach could require more maintenance to keep the reusable launch vehicle up to code, it could ultimately allow space programs to get into and beyond LEO cheaper and more frequently. Just this past year, two commercial space companies have been attempting to accomplish just that by testing the viability of two different reusable rocket launch systems.

The New Shepard Rocket sitting on the launch pad before making its historic launch and return back from suborbital space. Photo by Blue Origin, taken from their launch video.

Last year, the private space company, Blue Origin, made history as the first group to successfully launch and bring back a suborbital rocket stage in one piece. On November 23, 2015 the team successfully launched their New Shepard space vehicle from their launch site in West Texas. The rocket, originally named in honor of Alan Shepard, reached its planned test altitude of around 100.5 km (329,839 feet) into suborbital space. While the delineation between Earth’s atmosphere and outer space remains slightly unresolved, many players in the space industry accept the arbitrary definition of space to be anything beyond 100 km above Earth’s sea level – a boundary commonly referred to as the Kármán lineAt this point past the Kármán line, the unmanned crew capsule was separated from the rocket and lingered in space for a few minutes before descending back to the surface. Once it reentered the atmosphere, the capsule deployed its three main parachutes and landed on the ground safely and in one piece.

As the capsule made its descent, the highlight of the launch test was rapidly approaching – quite literally. The New Shepard rocket booster descended towards the Earth’s surface and navigated towards the landing pad under guided flight operations. Just before it hit the target, the booster’s BE-3 engine was re-ignited to slow the vehicle’s velocity down to about 2 m/s (or 44 mph) before eventually touching down as a gentle, albeit wobbly, vertical landing. Upon touchdown, the engines were cut and the champagne was popped. In a press release published by Blue Origin the next day, the company’s founder and Amazon CEO, Jeff Bezos, remarked:

“Now safely tucked away at our launch site in West Texas is the rarest of beasts – a used rocket…Full reuse is a game changer, and we can’t wait to fuel up and fly again.”

"The Falcon has landed." Photo from SpaceX, taken from their webcast video.
The Falcon 9 first stage, moments after its successful vertical landing at Cape Canaveral LZ-1. Photo from SpaceX, taken from their webcast video.

SpaceX, much like Blue Origin, has been spending a decent amount of time and effort on perfecting the vertical touchdown system to make full reusability a reality. Earlier attempts were made to land the Falcon 9 rocket on an autonomous droneship that acted as an ocean landing platform, but such a scenario involved too many moving variables and such little room for error. After numerous unsuccessful attempts at landing on water platforms, the company moved towards land-based touchdown tests instead. On December 21, 2015 an updated version of the Falcon 9 rocket launched into space, where a successful separation of the second stage took place, carrying its payload of 11 satellites into orbit. After the separation, the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket proceeded to make its way back towards the Earth’s surface – this time towards solid ground at Cape Canaveral’s Landing Zone 1 (LZ-1). Before landing, however, the first stage had to complete a ‘flip maneuver’, essentially righting itself back from its angled tilt towards space back to a vertical position, primed and ready for touchdown. A boostback burn then took place, in which 3 of the 9 engines on the first stage were relighted to help slow the vehicle down for landing. Within 10 minutes after launch, the Falcon 9 first stage had successfully landed upright and stable on LZ-1 while the rest of mission control erupted in cheers.

While this particular rocket will most likely not fly again (instead probably destined to be kept as a historical souvenir by the company), it will be taken to another test site at Cape Canaveral to undergo a static fire test before it is retired. Here, the rocket will be anchored in place on the launchpad while the engines are fired at full thrust, in order to provide the company with data on whether the rocket’s systems are up to code to theoretically be launched again. Ultimately, when put into practice, the feasibility of full reusability means a significant reduction in cost for future SpaceX launches. Elon Musk commented on cost reduction in an interview with Spaceflight Now:

“The Falcon rocket costs about $60 million to build…It’s kind of like a big jet, but the cost of the propellant, which is mostly oxygen and the gases, is only about $200,000, so that means that the potential cost reduction over the long term is probably in excess of a factor of 100.”


There is no doubt that Blue Origin’s leap into reusability has accomplished a remarkable feat, right alongside the success of SpaceX and their reusable orbital rocket booster a month later. However, it is important to note at this point that while both companies have achieved full reuse in their launch system designs, Blue Origin launched a suborbital rocket while SpaceX launched an orbital rocket. Suborbital can be popular for space tourism, technically crossing the Kármán line and entering space, whereas orbital launches are used to resupply the ISS and assist other space missions in orbit. As a result, the design and build of the New Shepard and the Falcon 9 rocket are significantly different due to their different functionalities. In general, the Falcon 9 rocket deals with relatively greater mach speeds and greater thrust. In terms of physical build, the Falcon 9 is also slimmer and taller compared to the New Shepard. Therefore, to compare the two rockets and their successes on the same level would not be an entirely fair way of going about things. Regardless of their differences, however, there is no doubt that both rockets have successfully demonstrated the start of a new era of spaceflight – full reusability and more affordable access to the world of LEO and beyond.