Highlights From Our First Year

We’re blogging from a spectrum of sciences that help us understand ourselves, the world around us, and the universe.

With that thought from astrophysicist and blogger Kai Martens, Curious Stardust began with a flourish last October. Since then, we’ve attracted more than 20,000 views with over 40 posts. Now the academic year is winding down, and so are we—but only temporarily. After a summer hiatus, we’ll be back in the fall with more news and insights from the frontiers of nanoscience, neuroscience and astrophysics.

Participants and instructors at the weekend blog writting workshop. Foreground (left to right): Andrew Revkin, The New York Times (mentor); Emre Yaksi, KISN (Trondheim); Mandeep S.S. Gil, KIPAC (Stanford); Liz Bass (Alda Center Director); Jim Cohen. Back Row (left to right): Hardip S. Sanghera, KIC (Cambridge); Faye Flam, Forbes.com (mentor); Sean Coulson, KIBM (San Diego); Katie McGill, KIC (Cornell); Eric Miller, KIA (MIT); Sean Escola, KIBS (Columbia); Curtis Brainard, Scientific American (mentor); Charlie Siegel, Kavli IPMU (Tokyo); Kia Martens, Kavli IPMU); Alex Nemiroski, KIBST (Harvard); Jiang Li, KNI (Caltech); Michael Spikes, Stony Brook (blog site web master)

Curious Stardust bloggers and mentors (from left to right foreground to back): Andrew Revkin (mentor), Emre Yaksi,Mandeep S.S. Gil, Liz Bass, James Cohen, Hardip S. Sanghera, Faye Flam (mentor), Sean Coulson, Katie McGill, Eric Miller, Sean Escola, Curtis Brainard (mentor), Charlie Siegel, Kia Martens, Alex Nemiroski, Jiang Li, Michael Spikes (web master).

Here we share some high points from our first year:

We explored the nanoscale health sensors of tomorrow; the probabilities and hurdles of human space exploration, and the promise that is inherent in understanding our own cognitive abilities. We looked closely at the universe, the known truths, and the mysteries that remain.

Our most visited post, with more than 5,000 views here and over 14,000 views on YouTube, was our live discussion about the space travel film Interstellar, followed by “What a Speech Disorder Reveals” by Seana Coulson; a second live discussion about “Science at the Oscars” and “Rocketing to the Red Planet” by Mandeep Gill.

There are a lot of great science discussions on the Internet, and our bloggers helped share in the conversation. In November we crafted our own science haiku, also known as #sciku. In January, Katie McGill began our campaign to connect with the #GirlsInSTEM and #WomenInSTEM movement.

In March we celebrated Pi Day, and paid homage to our other favorite constants. Then just last month, mentor Andrew Revkin got us involved in the #IAmAScientistBecause discussion. Reasons ranged from “I love exploring the laws of nature,” from Katie McGill and “I love games,” by Charles Siegal to “I want to know who I am,” from Kai Martens and (a bit jokingly), “I will achieve victory over all those who bullied me as a nerd back in junior high,” by Mandeep Gill.

Whatever your pursuits and wherever your curiosity leads you, we wish you a stimulating summer. And we’ll see you again in the fall, when we’re back to explore the laws of nature, play games, and figure out just who we are in the universe.

Heather Sparks, Managing Editor
   James Cohen, Director of Communications and Public Outreach, The Kavli Foundation
   Elizabeth Bass, Director of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science

Assessing Body Chemistry with Nano “Oreos”

dunk-oreo-cookie-milk-without-getting-your-fingers-messy.w654Take an Oreo. Dunk it into milk. Take it out. Is there anything different about it? Aside from being covered in milk, probably not. OK, but let’s have a little fun. Imagine if the filling swelled up because of the milk and moved the cookies farther apart. Hold that image in your head. Now imagine you instead dunked it into orange juice, and when you took it out, the filling got thinner and chocolate wafers moved closer together. Why in the word would you dunk an Oreo in orange juice? You probably wouldn’t, that’s just plain silly! But bear with me. What you’d have is a rudimentary chemical sensor; one that changes shape based on the acidity of the liquid you put it in. If you had no sense of taste, you could use this magic Oreo to test if something were less acidic (like milk) or more acidic (like orange juice). If you shrunk the Oreo down by about 25,000 (to less the size of a red blood cell), you’d be able to measure all sorts of important stuff, like the pH (degree of acidity) of blood, or presence of electrolytes, or even chemical gradients—which are notoriously difficult to measure—just based on how much the filling in the now nano-sized Oreo expanded or contracted.

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Changes in magnetic field strength affects the resonant frequency of the protons in water molecules near the nanoprobes. (Image: Kelley/NIST PML)

Well, scientists at the National Institute of Health and the National Institute of Standards & Technology did just that. In a recent article published in the journal Nature, this very clever team came up with a way make microscopic Oreo-shaped chemical sensors. The cream filling: a hydrogel that changes how much it swells based on how acidic the liquid is that it is exposed to. The wafers: thin films of iron, which can be magnetized (that’s the key!). OK – so you’ve injected these little sensors into the blood or brain and the nano Oreos all swell by an amount that depends on the acidity, now what? That’s where the magnetism comes in. Applying a strong magnetic field causes the wafers to magnetize (remember, they were made of iron). The closer they are together (depending on the swelling) the stronger the magnetic field that passes between them in the hydrogel filling. The magnetic field inside the hydrogel then causes the water molecules that leak in (our body is mostly water!) to spin faster when the field is strong, and slower then field is weaker. If you then focus a radio frequency signal at those spinning water molecules, they will bounce back the signal most strongly when their rate of spinning is the same frequency as the radio signal. This method of imaging by using radio frequency fields that resonate with spinning water molecules is the well-known “Magnetic Resonance Imaging,” or MRI. In this case, by determining the frequency at which the water reflects most strongly (like tuning a radio), you can figure out how fast the water molecules are spinning, and therefore, how close together each pair of microscopic magnetic wafers are, within in each nano Oreo. This information, in turn tells you how acidic the fluid is.

So, together with MRI, it will soon be possible to inject these microscale chemical sensors into some part of the body, and wirelessly read out exactly what the pH is or how concentrated electrolytes are, and where. The authors of this study also foresee that by using different hydrogels, it may be possible to sense temperature, or even different metabolites and proteins. Exciting indeed! Being able to actually “see” these kinds of chemical gradients will revolutionize medicine, biology, and neuroscience. Because the body absorbs most frequencies of light, typical methods of “seeing” (like endoscopy) don’t work well for these purposes. But magnetic fields go right through the body without harm. And so, as with nano Oreos, the future of seeing chemistry in the body will likely bring thousands of new kinds of microscopic magnetic particles sensitive to all sorts of important chemicals, like hormones and proteins, or even disease carrying bacteria or viruses. The sky is the limit, and magnetism is the key.

Alex Nemiroski Kavli Institute for Bionano Science and Technology (KIBST) at Harvard UniversityAlex Nemiroski
Kavli Institute for Bionano Science at Harvard University
Twitter: @alexnemiroski

#IAmAScientistBecause

Why would anyone dedicate their life to measuring faint electromagnetic radiation of the universe? What purpose does a mathematician find in solving equations that nearly no one understands?

If you want to know, Twitter is on fire with scientists explaining their career choice.

The #IAmAScientistBecause hashtag started with a tweet by one astrophysicist back in August (explained in a NY Times Dot Earth post by our mentor Andrew Revkin). But this Monday, April 2nd, the subject took flight, garnering nearly 7000 contributions in the past four days.

Here, our bloggers get in on the action.

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—Katie McGill @physicskatie

#IAmAPhysicist because I want to know who I am. Space and time organize all that I think and dream.

Kai Martens @physicskai

#IAmAScientistBecause I will achieve victory over all those who bullied me as a nerd back in junior high. #jkjk

—Mandeep Gill @mssgill

#IAmAMathematician because I love games and science, and wanted to learn the rules so I could play.

Charles Siegal @SiegelMath

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—Eric Miller @gastrophyz

Why are you a scientist? Or why not? Please share your thoughts in the comments!