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”.
Q:Could you direct me to some blogs about human anatomy? I'm curious about the purpose of the cupid's bow in lips, but my searches are only coming up with cosmetics discussions or people critiquing if they love or hate them.
Hey followers, help out pyranova and leave your favorite human anatomy blogs (not the NSFW kind, the science kind) in the reblogs/notes! The hive mind is always much smarter than me when it comes to matters like these :)
I’d rather talk about “Cupid’s bow”:
Named for its resemblance of a particular winged cherub’s amorous armament, the pinched curve of the upper lip is sometimes referred to as “Cupid’s bow.” It’s formed by the meeting of the upper lip with that little dimple that nearly all of us have beneath our nose, known as the philtrum.
So what does the philtrum do, besides look cute?
Nothing. Not for humans anyway.
The philtrum, our lip dimple (limple?), is just a byproduct of how your face formed. Early in your development, just a few weeks after you were put in the uterine oven to cook, your face began to take shape. Cells and tissues from the outer and middle layers of your still-formless body migrated and folded like sheets of embryonic origami. Two of those early tissues, called the nasomedial prominence and maxillary prominence, respectively, folded up like a cellular cinch-sack, with the tiny dimple beneath your nose being the seam where all that dermal dough was pinched together to make your face pastry. Follow me? It happened like so:
When this seam fails to fuse, it results in malformations like cleft lip.
The philtrum has a function in other animals, though. Let’s use my dog Oliver as an example, captured here in a particularly derpy moment this evening while we were playing fetch:
See that groove in the center of his nose? That’s his philtrum. Every time he licks his lips, a bit of saliva hangs there, drawn upwards from his mouth thanks to capillary action, keeping his big, dumb, adorable nose nice and wet. Animals like Oliver, who apparently depends highly on his sense of smell to navigate the world despite his uncanny ability not to be disgusted by his incredibly potent, but thankfully occasional, flatulence, rely on a wet nose to capture scent particles from the air. Dry nose? Less sniffs to sniff.
Since humans and higher primates rely mainly on eyesight to do our primate stuff, we are no longer under evolutionary selection to have a functioning, deeply grooved philtrum, so it’s faded over time into the dimple we know and (most of us) love today. Stephen Jay Gould might even have called it a spandrel.
Come to think of it, it may have an evolutionary function after all: It’s where you rest your finger when you say “Shh, Joe… be quiet. You’ve written enough.”
Q:Hey Joe, do you have any idea what Dyson means when he says:"The Ph.D. takes far too long and discourages women from becoming scientists". Obviously not about the time part. Why a long period of time should discourage women? I'm in between computation physics and engineering right now and I saw a lot of people "giving up" (or wanting to give up) with a master for a place in some big company outside the Academia (fruitless reaserch, bad advisors,...). But it looks a pretty genderless attitude
(In reference to this post)
I can’t speak for Dyson, since I don’t know exactly what he meant, but I expect he was referring to what Mary Ann Mason calls the “baby penalty” in academic science.
You can (and should) read all about Mason’s work at Slate, but essentially she embarked on a massive study to determine why women fail to reach positions of leadership in academia at the same rate that men do, and found that having children had a massively negative effect on a woman’s career success in academia.
The problem begins early. Mason notes:
Female graduate students and postdoctoral fellows who have babies while students or fellows are more than twice as likely as new fathers or than childless women to turn away from an academic research career. They receive little or no childbirth support from the university and often a great deal of discouragement from their mentors.
I witnessed that many times when I was in graduate school. One of my labmates was pressured to be back in lab less than a week after having her baby. She obliged, and her son spent most of the first months of his life in China with his grandparents.
It doesn’t get much better once they enter the application pool for faculty jobs:
70 percent of women and more than one-half of the men considered faculty careers at research universities not friendly to family life. Others are married to other Ph.D.s, the “two body” problem. In those cases, one body must defer to the other’s career and that body is far more likely to be the woman’s.
And for the women that do get hired, achieving tenure seems to be incompatible with a healthy family life (although this probably goes much deeper than just having or not having children):
Women professors have higher divorce rates, lower marriage rates, and fewer children than male professors. Among tenured faculty, 70 percent of men are married with children compared with 44 percent of women.
This is just one part of why women fail to advance in the sciences when compared to their male colleagues. There’s loads of other discriminatory factors at play all along the process, pretty much from the time they start school until they get tenure (more about that in this New York Times piece from last year).
There’s lots of gender-neutral stuff that discourages people from becoming scientists, but there’s a whole lot MORE that disproportionately affects women.