Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Duke Research Blogroll Grows

The practice of blogging about science -- writing short, informal little items about science news, the process of science, the interesting people doing science -- is more than a fad at this point. It's become a full-on movement.

Witness the third international gathering of science bloggers in the Triangle this past weekend, now called ScienceOnline(insert year here).

Several Duke bloggers were on hand to meet their fellow bloggers and present on panels in the "unconference," including Vanessa Woods of Bonobo Handshake and Meredith Barrett of Lemur Health & Conservation (don't miss Meredith's short videos of mouse lemurs!).

When we launched the Duke Research online magazine just over a year ago, we wanted to tap into these fresh and authentic voices through a "science blogroll." At first, it was a little scant, with only three or four that we could find. Today, there are more than a dozen!

In fact, we picked up two new members of the Duke Science blogroll at ScienceOnline09:

Kevin Zelnio (on the left, in the crab hat) is a research technician at the Duke Marine Lab who was an established blogger at Deep Sea News before he came to Beaufort. He team-writes the blog with Craig McClain, who works at the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center in Durham, and Peter Etnoyer, who earned a Nicholas School masters degree with Larry Crowder at the Marine Lab.

Southern Fried Scientist Andrew (the squid-head above) is a Duke graduate student -- also at the Marine Lab -- an an undergrad alumnus. He studies deep sea biology, and encourages his undergrad students to make short videos about what they've learned.

Apparently the lads put on quite a show at a ScienceOnline mixer, singing some bawdy sea shanties, as marine scientists are wont to do. Sorry I missed it!

If you're reading this, you already know about science blogs, and I hope you'll add these new voices to your rounds. Please also tell your friends!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The 'Groucho' Effect

According to Evolutionary Anthropology Department chairman Daniel Schmitt, something special happened in humans' family tree about 2 million years ago. Long before that, our line already had become the only mammals to walk fully erect. But fossilized bones from our ancestor Homo erectus suggest that by 2 million years ago we were also walking in the modern way.

Even toddlers do that spontaneously, Schmitt said in a Jan. 14 seminar on global health at Duke's John Hope Franklin Center, as the image of an 18-month-old example flashed on a screen. Sporting a fashionable blue hat, the shoeless little girl dug in one sandy heel while pivoting forward on her other foot's toes as she strode purposefully down a beach.

The result is a straight-legged, pivoting walk that converts potential into kinetic energy at an exceptional 70 to 75 percent efficiency said Schmitt, who as an anthropologist and Medical Center lecturer is interested in the gaits of various animals as well as human arthritis, bone disease and obesity.

While our walk is efficient, all that heel pounding transmits a force about equal to our body's weight along our legs and knees. To compensate, the human line has evolved bone sockets and joints that grew considerably larger as our walking style changed, he said. But over time, our knees and other pressure points may still pay a price in bone and joint diseases, especially if we're overweight.

Our closest living primate relatives never have walked like we do, Schmitt said. When Great Apes choose to walk erect, they adopt a flat-footed gait that lets their knees and hips to bend in a style he labeled "compliant walking."

Fossil evidence suggests human forebearers older than homo erectus were compliant walkers too. And so was a famous 20th century comic, he said, as a cartoon caricature flashed on the screen. Needing no introduction to adults of a certain age, there was Groucho Marx stooping towards his jutting cigar as he ambled flat footed across the stage.

"Compliant walking can reduce loadings," Schmitt said. And studies have shown it can lower forces on ankles and joints, he added. So perhaps we can learn something from our own evolutionary history, he suggested. For some people, walking like Groucho might be therapeutic.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Smart Home, Smart Lighting

Smart Home, a live-in laboratory at Duke University, is a place where inter-disciplinary research meets practical needs.

After having won one of the most prestigious ratings in green buildings, called the Platinum LEED rating (given by the US Green Building Council), Smart Home has established itself as a foremost example of focusing holistic research on sustainable building techniques. Students from many majors continuously work in groups on projects for the Smart Home and compete for the Will Senner Grants Award Competition and the Cisco Innovation Award.

One of the interesting projects that won the Will Senner Grants Award Competition late last year was an all-freshman team whose research focuses on tapping the vast potential of the sophisticated lighting system of the Smart Home.

The ambitious goal is to work on the lines of sustainability and greatly reduce the wastage of light and energy in homes. Some of the immediate subprojects include a night light system- a system in which if a resident arrives late at night, the path to his room can be lit so as to avoid disturbing other residents with excessive light; measuring the REM sleep cycle of the person so that the lights and other electronic equipment can instantly switch off once the person is asleep, thereby saving huge amounts of energy; a light notification system that is directly connected to the door bell, so that instead of creating noise by ringing the bell, the residents can be notified of visitors through a subtler system of flashing of lights; night time protection that will systematically and logically turn lights on and off to mimic the presence of someone in home all the time, even during vacation, hence provides protection.

The research narrows down to the fact that through the power of fuzzy logic, the programmable lights in Smart Home can be made to fulfill several functions that can enhance day-to-day lights as well as provide a further step in promoting sustainability.