Composing Compost: Fun with Microorganisms

So finally I completed the project that began with the chicken wire matters I spoke of a while ago. Work and such things have a way of intervening for weeks, preventing a good idea from going from conception to completion in what should be a day or two. The plan? To stop throwing away lots of wonderful organic matter and keep it instead, turning it into compost. This makes sense because so much of my garden has rather poor soil, for a start, and for a second matter it just seems wrong to not do it. for a third, it’s fun to do experiments with some microbiology for a change. Microbiology? Well, the object of the exercise is to let nature turn any organic material that you have into compost – full of nutrients for growing new things. Compost is also good for moisture control, good drainage, and a host of other things that are beneficial to plants in the garden. How does nature do this? Bacteria, mostly. But for the bacteria and other microorganisms to do their job (digesting the material), one needs to give them good conditions to live in. Conditions involve the right amount of moisture, air, and food, and the point of my project was first to prepare containment for the compost manufacturing process, and then to prepare a good combination of raw materials, place them properly, and then leave the little organisms to their own devices to do their thing. Here’s a good webpage at Cornell about the various stages of composting, the temperatures involved, and the various organisms (bacteria of various sorts, actinomycetes (a kind of filamented bacterium), fungi (various molds and yeasts), protozoa) that come into play at the various stages.

compost projectSo, phase one: Containment. Well everything is going to be kept together with a cylinder of chicken wire, and so measurement of the desired radius [tex]r[/tex] followed by a quick computation ([tex]d=2\pi r[/tex]) to give me the length I needed to cut, and I was away. Shortly after I realised that my measurements were to be determined by the size of the mouth of the large trash bags I’d bought to add as the liner of the containment cylinder. So I ended up readjusting everything to fit that. I cut everything a bit big to allow for the overlap I […] Click to continue reading this post

Fun With Alkali Metals

Speaking of science television shows (as I’ve been in a number of recent posts), have you seen Brainiac, over in the UK? It came up in conversation recently* and so I went to YouTube to have a look:

[Update: Ugh. They faked the final two explosions. Have a look here. Thanks Tristram Brelstaff for pointing this out. See my comment additions below in the explanation also.]

“The dog’s nuts of the periodic table…”
Must remember to use that in my physics 100 class next year….

Ok… it’s definitely fun for the kids! The science? When they calm down, you get to tell them about why this extreme reaction happens. Here’s a rough explanation:

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Some big news:

wired science bannerAs I said in the previous post, there’s more to the new WIRED Science TV show on PBS than just the TV show. The website is going to be full of quite a lot of additional material, starting next Wednesday. There’ll be show episodes, extensions of some of the segments, extra links to expand upon the stories, materials for schools, and so forth. But there’s also something else in the works. There’ll be a dedicated blog for the show, and it is called “Correlations”.

Correlations is a new group science blog, with bloggers of a range of interests. It will be connected to the show in many ways, but will expand well beyond the show into aspects of science and technology of all sorts, according to the tastes of the bloggers involved. There’ll be all sorts of interesting material, from serious stuff to fun stuff, and points in between. I think that it’s a great combination of bloggers (the team was assembled by Leighton Woodhouse, of KCET – we had a great conversation about the whole business of science blogging and science bloggers back during the Summer) and I’m quite excited to see how it goes. Who are they? Well, here’s the list:

[…] Click to continue reading this post

WIRED Science

I promised some interesting television news earlier, and here it is. Well, it is actually blogging news too. First let me step back a touch. Recall that some time back I mentioned that there were a number of new science shows vying for the nod from PBS to be their new primetime science show? Viewers could go in and vote on which show they preferred. Well, the show that won this was WIRED Science, the show I also told you more about here. I’m pleased about this since I thought it was actually the best of the bunch.

wired science bannerSo they’ve made some cast changes, and made new episodes (and are in the process of making more). The format is sort of like a magazine, so there are two people based in the studio (Chris Hardwick and Kamala Lopez) who introduce segments that are then played. These segments are essentially field reports from various reporters and agents in the field (Ziya Tong and Adam Rogers are two other principals in the studio at the start, but they are mostly doing field reports). There will also be some studio interviews (Ziya interviews Paul Kedrosky in the first show), and some other studio segments, like “What’s Inside” by Chris Hardwick, where he goes through a description of what’s inside an everyday household object or material. (I hope they do more of those – he’s really good at that.) For those of you from the UK, you’ll recognize the format – it is essentially like Tomorrow’s World used to be, but with more science1 (although since this is a WIRED project too, there’s going to be the fun/cool toys aspect).

wired science cast

The show’s headliners: Chris, Ziya, Adam and Kamala

The first one airs next week, on Wednesday October 3rd at 8:00pm. There’s a page here you can go to in order to have a look at the cast, and also see some clips from […] Click to continue reading this post

Magnetic Vision?

garden warbler by Tommy Holden. British Trust for Ornithology websiteThis is simply fascinating. I heard about it on NPR. While it is well known that birds are sensitive to the earth’s magnetic field, and use it to navigate, apparently it’s only been recently shown that this sensitivity is connected directly to the visual system (at least in some birds). The idea seems to be that the bird has evolved a mechanism for essentially seeing the magnetic field, presumably in the sense that magnetic information is encoded in the visual field and mapped to the brain along with the usual visual data. (Image: A garden warbler, photographed by Tommy Holden. I found it on the British Trust for Ornithology website, here.)

Have a listen to the NPR interview with Henrik Mouritsen (professor of neurosensory science at the University of Oldenberg in Germany – and among other things also a keen wildlife photographer, I learned from his website), and learn more about his […] Click to continue reading this post

Dawn at Dawn

Well, it is time for Round Two!

dawn spacecraft getting readyRecall that (as mentioned in my post with the doom-laden title) the Dawn mission was postponed by several months due to unfavourable launch conditions. Recall also that the celestial window for launching Dawn will not come again for another seventeen years, if it does not launch over the next couple of weeks or so! This is a bit scary therefore.

So the two week launch window is open, and Dawn is on the pad and ready to try to fly tomorrow, at around….. dawn. They’ve been preparing Dawn for this for a while now (you can see in the picture on the right some of the preparations – encasing it in the protective dressing for the rocket launch… I got this picture from this link and you can see more there), and from the press release of yesterday confirming that the mission is a “go”:

dawn spacecraft rendition“If you live in the Bahamas this is one time you can tell your neighbor, with a straight face, that Dawn will rise in the west,” said Dawn Project Manager Keyur Patel of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “Weather permitting, we are go for launch Thursday morning – a little after dawn.”

Dawn’s Sept. 27 launch window is 7:20 to 7:49 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time (4:20 to 4:49 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time). At the moment of liftoff, the Delta II’s first-stage main engine along with six of its nine solid-fuel boosters will ….

They also talk a bit about the science (also see later, below this): […]
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Ok, I’ve a confession to make. I’m going to watch a network show, and it is… Bionic Woman. I know, I know. It could well go down in flames, and all covered in cheese, but I want to give it a chance (and cheese can be good).

Why am I giving it a chance? Well, there’s been some great television made over the last few years, with great writing, acting, directing, and so forth, and most of it has been on cable. I think this has forced the networks to raise their game (often by just buying the services of the same people who did a good job on cable, but not always), and there’s some good work to be found. This might be one of them. I saw the extended trailer that was making the rounds in the early Summer and it looked like they’d been inspired a lot by the marvelous work on Battlestar Galactica, for example – a show that had such great writing, acting and directing (regardless of genre) that it holds up well against anything I’ve seen in a long time on television. (Just get the whole thing on DVD, starting with the pilot/miniseries… Try to ignore the Sci-Fi stigma and just treat it as what is it – well-written human drama. You won’t regret it.)

Further:- While I was watching the Bionic trailer and thinking this, who should show up […] Click to continue reading this post

MacArthur Mashup

The MacArthur Fellowships were announced today. These are particularly great, as it’s awarded across so many different fields, and I always learn about interesting work going on by reading the synopses at the website. Congratulations to all recipients!! Before I point to the list, I’d like to make a plea that will, of course, go unheeded.

Please please, people of the media, stop calling them “genius grants”. Just stop. By way of explanation, I can’t quite put my finger on it, but the term just seems to strike the wrong tone about what these things should be about. It seems to me to push the recipients away as being “other” rather than encouraging us all to embrace the qualities that they are being encouraged to show by getting the fellowships. Ok, that’s the end of my plea.

Here’s a reminder of what the Fellowship is about (extract from their site): […] Click to continue reading this post

New Installation

Yesterday we saw the official “installation” of Howard Gillman the new Dean of the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. I find this term amusing in this context, as it sounds a bit like putting in a new lightbulb, or perhaps a new operating system (the latter is, I guess is closer to the truth). I sort of had to go since it represents the outcome of a lot of work I did last year on the search committee* that advised the Provost and President on their choices, and of course I have an interest in it as an ordinary faculty member of the College and of USC in general – The LAS is truly the core of USC, and we need the new Dean to do a good job of steering it forward in this (happily) continuing period USC’s steady and rapid progress on all fronts. So a good opening speech is seen as a good sign. It was good – much more than good actually – and everybody seemed to have genuinely good things to say afterwards (as we munched on the always excellent food served at these events – the other reason we go to them).

new dean installationRight: Not the most representative photo (click to enlarge), but you can see him mid-speech, with President Sample seated listening. Assembled is a lot of the faculty, mostly seated. All the other Deans from all the other units were present, as well as various vice-Presidents and so forth. They all precessed into the room, and members of USC Thornton School of Music’s choir sang the USC song, which was… quite a bit more pomp and circumstance than I was expecting. What you can’t see is that the room is about twice as big as the part you can see, there’s lots of faculty standing around in that part, with several tables of very tasty food and wine for all.

For the record, the fact that I thought that it was a good speech has nothing to do with […] Click to continue reading this post

Tips on Global Warming

global warming book by Laurie David and Cambria Gordon This looks/sounds like fun.

I heard about it on NPR (audio about it here). I suspect that it will be useful and informative not just for kids, but for us older ones as well. It is by Laurie David and Cambria Gordon. I’ve not read it, but from what I gather from the interview, it is certainly worth a look if you’re in the market for accessible information that someone you know (or a whole household) might like to have.

From the NPR site: […] Click to continue reading this post

ScienceWoman’s New Digs

Just thought I’d let you know that the blog of ScienceWoman (that I talked about in an earlier post) has now moved. Her blogging about her day to day experiences and thoughts as an early career woman scientist will be getting a whole lot more attention now that it is under the ScienceBlogs umbrella. Go and have a look at her new digs. She’s already started off nicely with a post asking readers to name their favourite woman scientist, with the resulting interesting contributions and discussions you’d expect in the comments. Go and add your two cents.

While I was over at ScienceBlogs (haven’t been in a long while) I spotted a rather […] Click to continue reading this post


Finally. I never thought I’d see the day again. Finally and end to the seemingly perpetual sunshine. It has not been since March (unless I’m very mistaken) since there’s been any serious rain here, and more than five months since there’s been any officially measurable rain of any sort in Los Angeles (as measured by the official station down at USC).

I was beginning to despair a bit. I need rain, psychologically as well as for more mundane reasons like wanting my garden to get a good soaking. There’s something about the way my outlook on the world works that needs to have good rainfall sometime. Rainfall where I live, I mean. I’d seen some wonderful rain over the summer (almost daily afternoon thunderstorms in Aspen for a few weeks, nice rain and drizzle for a week in Cambridge), and that did help me with the waiting, but I’ve been needing rain at home.

griffith observatory with storm clouds
Photo (added later): Griffith Park’s Mount Hollywood with the Griffith Observatory and rain-filled clouds above. Mount Lee with the Hollywood sign (just visible) is behind.

And so here it is! There’s the wonderful sound of it on the roof, and then there’s the […] Click to continue reading this post