Author Archives: navidasanjh

Tree Rings Give Scientists Insight to Earthquake History

It’s something we’ve all probably heard through the grapevine – the ‘looming’ earthquake that is going to hit the Vancouver region. After the recent devastation on Japan, one may be led to wonder, how are the effects seen down the road? Will the anguish still be prevalent hundreds, or even thousands of years from now?

In a recent conversation with Tom Balakshin (a friend and avid geologist) about the earthquake history in the Pacific Northwest, he enlightened me on how scientists track the history of seismic activity – specifically noting an earthquake that occurred in Northwest Washington approximately 1000 years ago. Though physical traits such as an abrupt uplift in shorelines, and evidence of a deposition from a tsunami, one of the most fascinating discoveries looks past the land formations, and to the vegetation of the surrounding land.

Prehistoric rock avalanches (believed to be the product of forceful seismic activity) in the Olympic Mountains between 1000 and 1300 years ago caused surrounding trees and plants to be completely submerged in water – trapping them in by rock dams. Scientists were able to determine the trees that drowned during the avalanche by observing tree rings. Trees that were underwater showed patterns uncharacteristic of those in normal conditions, such as diminished wood quality and varying ring spacing due to the death of outer layers. Analysis of the dead wood allowed scientists to determine that the avalanche predated the last ring about 100 years, as well as also indicating which season the trees died in.

Who would’ve thought that the rings of a tree could not only tell age, but also the environmental conditions that were present at that time? Even though the memories of those victimized through these devastations never fade, this just goes to show the Earth itself has its own way of keeping track of these natural catastrophes.

Check out this brief video on how scientists actually use the rings to reveal the tree’s history!

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Arsenic – Venomous or Vital for Life?

Arsenic. Just the thought of the compound sickens many due it its infamous toxic properties.  Who would’ve thought that a compound this hazardous to most organisms could be one of the building blocks of life for another?

A recent discovery of microorganisms in Mono Lake, California shocked geneticists and scientists all over the world. This past December, NASA proclaimed that they had discovered the first known organism on Earth that utilizes arsenic as one of its chemical means of life and survival. Though some bacteria are known to obtain their energy by oxidizing arsenic as a fuel, Prior to this discovery, every known organism on Earth had used carbon, nitrogen, phosphorous, oxygen, sulphur, and hydrogen as the six fundamental elements of life. This organism discovered has been found to replace the phosphorous in the classic combination, with arsenic – using it as a staple backbone in its hereditary units and as an energy-carrying molecule.

Some researchers believe that due to the harsh conditions within Mono Lake, (high levels of saline, alkanes, and arsenic – fun fact, the lake actually has a layer of dead flies floating around the circumference of its surface) the organism may have evolved to adapt to the depleting levels of nutrients and utilize other chemicals present – a process that could have taken who knows how long.

It’s mind-boggling to believe that the discovery of one miniscule, seemingly insignificant organism has completely changed the way scientists viewed the way life has survived. This ‘seventh’ core element can only lead those to wonder what other microorganisms are waiting to be discovered that could potentially utilize fluorine as a main structural component, or harness radio waves as energy.

What about life beyond the planet Earth? Could this discovery just prove that complex species may be thriving in the inhuman conditions of the other planets?

The Vast Field of Biomechatronics

Biomechatronics – one of science’s most rapidly developing areas –  is a  field that encompasses biology, mechanics and electronics. Examples of inventions that have sprouted from this field include, ECG’s, surgical robotics, medical cameras, and other body monitoring devices. One of the most recent discoveries in this field have sprouted from combinations of robotics and neuroscience, in which researchers have been working to develop prosthetic limbs that render the user under complete control of its functions – solely relying on the individual’s own cognitive processes.

One of the most notable breakthrough stories that I read about belongs to that of Pierpaolo Petruzzellio. Petruzzellio, an Italian man, lost his left arm in a car accident at the age of 25. Scientists in Rome quickly grasped this unfortunate event in Petruzzellio’s life as an opportunity to test their latest technology in hopes of giving him the chance of gaining a fully functional arm again. Electrodes were placed on the nerves that remained in Petruzzellio’s forearm, and  were then attached to a robotic arm through a network of cables and wires. Though the arm was not directly attached to his body, Petruzzellio claimed after a month he began to feel sensations in the artificial limb –  almost as if he had a real arm again. All this in consideration, the process was certainly not easy. It took Petruzzellio about a month of consistent focus and determination to begin to control the robotic arm to form even the most primitive of hand gestures, (wiggling of fingers, clenched fists, etc) and even then they were still shaky and took a great amount of mental control. Nonetheless, the dexterity exhibited by Petruzzellio was something that had never been witnessed before in this field of science.

Though this is undoubtedly an amazing advancement in biomechatronic science, one may wonder – where can the possibilities end? Now that scientists are well on their way to providing fully functional, consciously controlled prosthetics, what’s not to stop them from further developing these projects – branching out from aiding the disabled, to augmenting the abilities of normal, healthy humans? What if scientists are able to create robotic legs, capable of running never before seen speeds and carrying inhuman strength? What if 10 years down the road, humans were capable of being mechanically fitted to possess multiple limbs? In sports, could these mechanical advantages for the disabled be deemed appropriate?

Where should the line be drawn? As long as Arnold Schwarzenegger as Terminator doesn’t show up anytime soon, I think I’ll be all right.

Biomechatronics taken too far?

Check out this amazing video depicting the science behind Petruzzellio’s artificial limb, and his experiences.