Q:Joe! Where did you get your Copernicus t-shirt from your bloopers video? :)
Q:Is congenital myotonia found in non-domesticated animals?
This question comes from my video about GOATS! so you should watch that first to get an intro on fainting goats (congenital myotonia) and also just because goat science is awesome.
I just spent half an hour digging through scientific literature trying to find reports of congenital myotonia (“fainting syndrome”) in a wild animal and came up with exactly zilch, zero, and nada. We see it in goats, horses, dogs, cats, people… all of which are domesticated species (except for maybe people), but no reported cases in wild animals. Does that mean it’s impossible?
First let me summarize what should happen in a normal skeletal muscle contraction, then I’ll answer that question.
Muscle cells, like nerve cells, actively maintain different concentrations of ions on either side of their membrane. This resting membrane potential is super-interesting, but also pretty complicated, so instead of me turning this answer into a textbook chapter, all you need to remember right now is that the inside of a muscle cell is slightly negative compared to the outside. The ions we need to keep in mind right now are sodium (Na+, higher conc. outside), potassium (K+, higher concentration inside), and chloride (Cl-, higher concentration outside).
When a nerve impulse reaches a muscle fiber, the neurotransmitter acetylcholine opens a sodium-specific door on the muscle and lets some Na+ ions inside.
Sodium is a positive ion, so it makes the inside of the muscle more positive. Then that initial burst of Na+ leads to an even larger Na+ wave. Positivity breeds positivity, people!
This burst of positive charge into the muscle cell is essentially what makes it contract (although I’m leaving out a bunch of stuff, like how calcium comes into play, to dig into more detail on all this, check out these great illustrations from MDA.org)
Of course, muscles don’t usually stay contracted, unless you’re dead, diseased, or get a cramp. Why not? After a short amount of time, potassium ions flow out of the cell through their own special potassium doors (making the inside more negative again) and chloride ions move in through their special chloride doors (making the inside even more negative).
It’s the return to that original inside-negative state that makes the muscle relax (now maybe you can start to see why loss of salt/electrolytes can lead to cramps?)
Finally we come to the fainting goats. Congenital myotonia leads to a mutation in that chloride channel I mentioned up there (if you’re into gene and protein names, it’s called CLCN1), meaning that those muscle cells take longer to return to their normal negative-on-the-inside charge and stay locked in the “on” state.
That’s what we see in “fainting” goats, or any other creature with congenital myotonia. The muscles just lock up, and the “fainting” is really just “falling over thanks to suddenly obtaining the flexibility of a statue.”
So does this mutation exist in wild animals? Probably. There’s no reason a wild animal could gain a spontaneous mutation in its chloride channel gene and have particularly rigid offspring. Only these statue-creatures would be easy pickings for predators, as in “easiest meal evar,” and that mutation wouldn’t be able spread throughout the population. Since we can’t keep track of every single wild animal and their offspring, we probably never see it (although there might be isolated reports out there). Like, what’s happening with this panda? I don’t even know.
On the other hand, we inbreed the hell out of domesticated animals, and thanks to fences, sharp sticks, and sheepdogs, we tend to keep them fairly safe from predators (not to mention that humans don’t have any predators except each other). So whether or not they have the genetic misfortune of crumpling into a heap of myotonic hilarity every time we sneak up behind them, we’ve artificially (and accidentally) amplified this mutation in domesticated breeds (although breeders are often encouraged to not breed “fainting” animals).
So the answer to your question is almost certainly yes, although the Bad Wolves keep the Weeping Angels from taking over.
Q:I have been following your tumblr and youtube for a while. Is it sad I just realized you are the same person? I'll answer that one for you. Yes, yes it's sad. Anyway, you totally rock and inspire me to keep loving science, so thank you.
I knew it!
Let’s settle this once and for all. The guy who lives in the Tumblr box:
Is the same as this guy who lives in the YouTube box:
Also, thank you. You rock even more :)
Q:Hello! I am planning out this sculpture of Mars where, in simple terms, it is basically half of the planet now and half what it could possibly have been. I was wondering if you knew any sources for scientific theories (and/or artistic renderings based off some sort of science) about what the landscape could have possibly looked like. Personally, I don't think it would have looked just like the Amazon Rainforest and I want to make is as scientifically accurate as possible
You’re in luck! I actually posted this very sort of thing back in 2012.
It’s a project called PLANETCOPIA, and it not only features artist’s renditions/scientific simulations of a terraformed Mars, but also a geologically inverted Earth, Earth with 90% of its water gone, and Earth crossed with Mars.
(Be careful with that website, you’ll suddenly look up and realize you’ve been there for like three hours and will have neglected things like eating and bathroom breaks)
And because that wasn’t enough, I shared a similar thing in 2013: Kevin Gill’s artistic renditions of what a living Mars would look like.
We’d love to see the sculpture when you’re done!
Q:What exactly is your job? Also how did you get there? The things I see you do and talk about on your blog sounds amazing and I am so intrigued. I feel like you get to learn new things everyday and help other people to understand as well and that sounds amazing!
This is my job!
I mean, writing about science is my job, specifically for my YouTube show, which is produced by the fine people at PBS Digital Studios. You guys do know that I make a YouTube show which is essentially the video version of this blog, right? I hope so, because I feel like I practically beg you to watch it (I do). If you didn’t know that, I feel like we really need to improve our communication or I just don’t know where this relationship is going.
I also write the occasional print article about science, like this one I recently did for my college alumni magazine, or all these articles that I wrote for WIRED last year.
I got here by getting a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry, getting rejected from half a dozen grad schools right out of college, doing cancer research for a couple years, then doing pharmaceutical research for a year, then spending 7 almost years chained to the lab bench so I could get my Ph.D. in biology, during which I decided that I wasn’t going to be satisfied with a life as a researcher in a lab, although that was precisely what I was being trained to do (although I did/do enjoy teaching), so I started this blog, furiously (and flailingly) honing my writing to the level of “neglected steak knife”. The week after I finished my PhD I started a super-intense science journalism fellowship that further honed my writing skill to “cheese slicer that you need to be extra-careful with”, ultimately landing a job that lets me make creative, educational videos for all of you, and share the in between stuff with you here, and make enough money to live, which is really all any of us is after, right? I am pretty sure my writing has graduated to “those nice orange-handled scissors” in the meantime.
So that’s how I got here, to the position of Purveyor of Knowledge and Chief Science Dude at It’s Okay To Be Smart. It is amazing. Learning things and sharing excitement is not a job. But for some reason people pay me for it.
I would not recommend retracing this path. If you want to be a writer, you should probably just skip to the writing part.
Q:In response to your recent post about what is a dinosaur and what isn't, how do you tell the difference? This is something that's always perplexed me.
The problem with a word like “dinosaur” is that it’s really not very precise or descriptive. Scientists use much more precise terms when classifying and describing the species and groups under the general term “dinosaur” but most people just point at anything reptilian that lived a long time ago and call it a dinosaur.
Q:Question: As an artist I am fascinated by a pattern I see repeated throughout nature. Surely there must be a physic's law that is causing it? Tree branching/root systems, circulatory systems, nervous system, river branching, lightening patterns. The "branching" pattern is everywhere. What is that called and why does it show up everywhere? I am an artist obsessed with trees at the moment and if I can understand this concept my artwork will improve! Thanks Destin!
I want a word for this as well!
This NASA Earth Oservatory shot of Canyon de Chelly in Arizona illustrates this tree-like branching pattern quite well.
While fractals are certainly at play in these sort of natural patterns, mathematicians have a more specific term for this specific branching/sub-branching behavior: “ramification”.
Here’s a scientific study on the ramification of river networks, so you can see how they’re made. The magic number is 72˚.
Q:Do you do anything on PBS tv or are you just a youtuber for the most part? Either way is awesome but I was wondering why I haven't seen you on tv.
I haven’t done anything on PBS TV … not yet, anyway :) I absolutely would, because I literally could not work for and with better people than I do now (PBS Digital Studios), but I feel like it would have to be something different. YouTube is where IOTBS lives, the interwebz is where IOTBS was born, and that’s where it’s going to stay.
I think the thought of TV (or film) crosses a lot of YouTubers’ minds. Several big-time YouTubers (and my channel is still not one of the “big ones”) have made or are working on making the jump these days, and it brings up lots of interesting questions.
On one hand, TV/film is an opportunity to reach audiences that we couldn’t with YouTube, because despite how wide the reach of online video is, there are still a ton of people who don’t use it regularly (although that number is shrinking). Furthermore, TV come$ with bigger budget$, $o you get to do thing$ you wouldn’t nece$$arily get to do online (although more money ≠ better stuff). And you just can’t tell every story in the constraints of a 5-minute YouTube video. Longer stories ≠ better stories, but there’s a reason Radiolab and Cosmos are not the length of MinutePhysics. There’s lots of worthwhile stories that are better told in thirty minutes or an hour, and although we’re thinking of ways to bring those deeper stories to YouTube, not everyone is going to sit down for a half hour documentary on their iPhone. Or would they? I don’t know. Maybe they would. But not as many as would watch the 2-minute version.
On the other hand, when we make things for YouTube, no one is standing between us and our audiences. This is why we love YouTube, because creators do what creators want (within reason) and audiences do what audiences want. There are no suits, lawyers, standards and practices reps, focus groups, or Nielsen families looking at the fruit of your creative sweat and saying things like “Yeeeeeeeeeah, I don’t think that aligns with our demographic metrics,” whatever that means. I mean, there are, but not many. Likewise, there are none of the above telling you that you have to sit on your butt or tune your DVR at a particular time each week in order to get at your favorite videos. On YouTube, and online in general, there are very few of what we call “gatekeepers” (although that number is in danger of increasing as YouTube gets more “Hollywood”). Of course, the risk of having no gatekeepers online is that misinformation can spread like wildfire unless the audience is equipped to detect and respond to it, but that’s a discussion for another day.
Would a TV channel let Destin shakily (excitedly) hold his own camera while he stumbles across a new species of spider? Probably not. Where would a show about a dissection-loving museum volunteer live on your dial? Nowhere, and not just because TVs don’t have dials anymore.
I know some bigger YouTubers who have taken steps toward TV and are loving it, and some have been less-than-impressed with the creative control they would(n’t) have. That’s not necessarily a recipe for disaster if you work with talented people that you trust (for instance, I don’t think Planet Earth was produced by a vlogger, and it’s quite good), but it’s also how we get things like TLC and The History Channel. Luckily for me, and as anyone who watches them knows, PBS understands how to make things that are both good, by all of its various definitions, and also popular.
For me, it comes down to making things that never sacrifice being scientific, entertaining, and educational for the sake of being wildly popular or sensational, to telling people stories that will unlock mind-blowing truths about the world while also telling them that science is often imperfect or incomplete, and to not being so concerned with what I think people want to see that I lose sight of what I want to make. I don’t accomplish any of these things perfectly, but I know I wouldn’t be able to do any of them if I wasn’t doing them online. Not today, anyway.
I think that in the coming years, the audiences and opportunities that come with TV are going to meld with the freedom and creativity of the web to make some amazing multimedia babies. It’s pretty obvious that the distinction between “things that I watch online” and “things that I watch on my TV” is going to be a meaningless one very soon, and if we remember to hold creativity and respect for our audience’s intelligence above money and eyeballclicks, then we’ll be in good shape.
But TL;DR, yeah, I’d totally be down for taking David Attenborough’s job. As long as I get to keep this one.
Q:I'm not 100% sure this is a science question, but I'm dying to know regardless: Why does root beer fizz so much more than other sodas?
This is absolutely a science question, and an awesome one at that.
Root beer used to be made with flavor extracts steeped from roots and barks like sassafras. These extracts contained various proteins from the plants, and protein solutions tend to form foams under turbulent conditions (similar to what happens in violent wave and tidal pools). The FDA declared those root extracts to be toxic a few decades ago, so soda makers had to replace them with synthetic flavors.
People were used to having foamy root beer, though, that would retain its tongue-tingling head like a grown-up beer. So soda makers added synthetic foaming agents to retain the bubbly slurpitude that we know and love.
Q:Hi Joe, I have a super odd question. Why is it that when you put sugar onto berries, it "draws out" the juice? I know it probably (definitely?) has to do with osmosis, but my inner geek is wanting to know the chemical reactions, etc. Would it still work with salt? I assume it would. Thanks muchly!! :)
Sugar (sucrose) and table salt (NaCl) are both hygroscopic, meaning that they absorb water from the surrounding environment. When sugar absorbs water, the water molecules take up residence in between the sugar molecules, increasing the volume of the wet sugar suspension and creating a viscous saccharide gloopitude that is somewhere between liquid and solid, a sensation one might scientifically describe as “sticky”.