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Fire's Weird Behavior in Space

Fenella Saunders

In the microgravity environment of outer space, flames burn very differently than they do on Earth. Understanding those differences not only helps researchers grasp the properties of combustion and burning, but is also crucial for outer-space missions. Testing how materials ignite and smolder in microgravity is essential for choosing everything from windowpanes to wire insulation for the Space Station and potentially longer-term space missions to Mars or other destinations. A recent project on the Space Station, called BASS II (for Burning and Suppression of Solids), used the assistance of astronauts on the station to conduct controlled, contained experiments on a variety of flammable materials. Sandra L. Olson, the principal investigator of the mission at NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, provided imagery of some of the results. Olson also co-authored a recent feature in American Scientist on a particular type of insidious slow-growing flame in microgravity called flamelets. She and her coauthors also participated in an American Scientist hangout on the research.

Videos and images courtesy of Sandra L. Olson and NASA.

(Use the button on the right to enter 'full screen mode' to view the images and captions at the same time.)

See the associated blog for more, including video.

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Audio: Evolution of Sleep and Sleep Disorders

Robert Frederick

We spend a third of our lives sleeping, but our sleep compared to other mammals stands out: We sleep for shorter periods of time, our sleep schedules are more flexible, and they include a higher proportion of REM sleep. In this podcast episode, American Scientist’s Robert Frederick spoke with Charles Nunn of Duke University about the factors that may have influenced the evolution of both our unusual sleep and our sleep disorders.

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Audio: Dance -- It's Only Human

Katie L. Burke

Dancing is something we see in almost every human culture. But scientists think we're the only animals who synchronize our movements to music. To understand why, American Scientist’s Katie Burke spoke with two evolutionary psychologists who research how dancing helps us bond with other people. It turns out, what we get from dancing with one another is the same thing that chimpanzees get from grooming one another, which could help explain how our ancestors and our cultures evolved—to dance.

This story was produced in association with PRX with funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

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Video: A Lone Gunman? Using Statistics in Forensics

Robert Frederick

There were five bullet fragments groups in President Kennedy’s assassination, but if those fragments came from more than two bullets, it would have been very difficult to conclude that Lee Harvey Oswald was the only shooter.

In 1978, however, radiochemist Vincent P. Guinn testified before Congress that the composition of each of the five bullet fragments showed that they came from two—and only two—bullets. “There is no evidence for three bullets, four bullets, or anything more than two, but there is clear evidence for two,” Guinn said (8 September 1978 hearings before the Committee on Assassinations).

The problem with Guinn’s conclusion, however, is that he relied only on chemical analysis.

“Bias is a big problem in forensic science,” says Clifford Spiegelman of Texas A&M University, because forensic scientists are often tasked to look for verification of what police officers or federal investigators already suspect.

See the associated blog for more.

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Video: Cyber-Enabled Bionic Organisms

Robert Frederick

The future of search-and-rescue missions may be in the form of insect-sized robots. Researchers are creating such robots because of insects’ unmatched ability to navigate through a wide variety of environments, including the rubble of collapsed buildings. So far, though, the technology suffers from mechanical challenges. Tiny robots have a hard time carrying a sufficient power supply, for example, or bending their “legs” thousands of times without breaking the material they’re made from.

So, by merging current technologies with biological organisms, Alpert Bozkurt of North Carolina State University has found a way to control insects directly. His team successfully interfaced bionic systems with cockroaches.

See the associated blog for more.

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Video: How Hair Ice Forms

Fenella Saunders

In 2013, American Scientist featured an article on odd ice formations on plant stems.

One of the types of ice discussed in the article was hair ice—long, thin strands of ice that grow under quite specific conditions. The only problem is that a new study shows the theory put forth at the time—that gas pressure pushes the water out—isn’t correct.

We asked Christian Mätzler, a physicist at the University of Bern in Switzerland, and the lead author of the study, to provide an update on the hair ice formation mechanism.

See the associated blog for a full transcript of the video.

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Slideshow: Where the Xingu Bends and Will Soon Break

Katie L. Burke, Barbara Aulicino

Mark Sabaj Pérez is an ichthyologist whose expertise includes photographing fish up close and in detail. In this slideshow, we wanted to showcase some of the stunning visuals from his recent feature, "Where the Xingu Bends and Will Soon Break," which serves as a biologist's ode to Brazil's Xingu River, where the controversial Belo Monte megadam is slated to go into operation soon, changing its extensive rapids and diverse habitats. The author has been working with a team of Brazilian and American scientists on the iXingu Project to document the biodiversity of the river before the dam is in operation.

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Audio Exclusive: Discussing Rare Desert Species with Author Christopher Norment

Dianne Timblin, Katie-Leigh Corder

2015-11NormentCoverClick to Enlarge ImageFor our very first Scientists' Nightstand podcast, author Christopher Norment joins us to discuss his book, Relicts of a Beautiful Sea: Survival, Extinction, and Conservation in a Desert World, from University of North Carolina Press. It tells the story of six rare desert species native to the Death Valley region. Along the way Norment considers practical and ethical questions about conservation, especially around the issues of water use and climate change. He offers an eloquent and personal take on evolutionary history, firmly grounded in ecological science, enlivened by closely observed detail. Relicts of a Beautiful Sea presents a convincing argument for biodiversity conservation.

Christopher Norment is professor and chair of the Department of Environmental Science and Biology at the State University of New York College of Brockport. He's the author of several books including In the Memory of the Map: A Cartographic Memoir from the University of Iowa Press. He spoke to us in Durham, North Carolina, while he was here to present a lecture and reading for the E. O. Wilson Biodiversity Days, an event presented by the E. O. Wilson Biodiversity foundation and Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment.

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Slideshow: Fire’s Weird Behavior in Space

In the microgravity environment of outer space, flames burn very differently than they do on Earth... (click the link above to read more).

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