Category Archives: Science Communication

Mercury – NASA’s Fifth Planetary Conquest

Image of Mercury from previous Messenger missions. From NASA.

After years of planning and development, NASA’s space probe Messenger finally fell into Mercury’s orbit Thursday evening. At 9:10 p.m. of March 17, when the last rocket that projected Messenger shut off and the probe fell into Mercury’s gravity pull, scientists at the control room in John Hopkin’s University started in a round of applause.

Mercury is the fifth planet that NASA spacecrafts have orbited. Mercury is the closest planet to the sun and lacks an atmosphere. This means that Mercury’s surface is super heated by the sun during daytime but drops to hundreds of degrees below freezing at night. Also, without an atmosphere, Mercury’s surface is heavily cratered. The vast temperature different implies that ice could be found inside the craters. The Mercury probe hopes to bring back a year of photography that would help in the research of the creation of Mercury and its composition. With this goal in mind, surveillance of the probe is needed for the next few days. Constant checks on the probe’s health systems, testing of the scientific equipment that is on board is essentially so that the vast amount of data can be collected and  transmitted back to Earth.

This massive project started in 2004 with a budget of $446 million. Hopefully, the probe will bring back valuable data that would useful for planetary scientists to determine the evolution of Mercury.

Messenger also hits close to UBC as one of the Earth and Ocean Science professors, Dr. Catherine Johnson, participated in the project. Dr. Johnson is a participating scientist in the project and hopes to discover the reasons behind Mercury’s magnetic field. The probe Messenger hopefully will gather data that will be of use to Dr. Johnson.

Good Science! Bad Science?

Scientific literacy is a big part of science education; the ability to recognize pseudoscientific beliefs from scientific facts and theories is essential for science students. photo credits:

In an attempt to retrieve interesting blogging topics, I spent part of my weekend scouting through scientific magazines (mostly on-line but also in prints). And it was awful.

First try, I found a newspaper article describing a link between global warming and skin cancer. According to this article, since global warming increases the earth’s average temperature, it affects the cloud formation at the poles, which in turn interacts with the ozone layer and increases the size of the ozone hole, which allows more UV radiation and may explain the increase cases in skin cancer reported in the US and Europe. For a while, I searched for the sources they cited, but to no avail. It turns out, they were citing from a draft from WMO (World Meteorological Organization) that is not yet released to the public. Thus, there wasn’t a way to verify the information. In addition, the author’s name was not specified.

In retrospect, this article can be easily identified as BAD SCIENCE. However, in the mist of my excitement on that tired bus ride home, the science sounded great. I even convinced myself that I to buy more sunscreen for this summer (to prevent damage from the extra UV rays). My point is, scientific babbles can appear anywhere and everywhere and at a time when we are least expecting.

Identifying GOOD SCIENCE

According to the library resources available here, and through our course blog, we can evaluate our readings using AACCOP.


A responsible scientist will stand behind him/her article, and be backed by a notable organization.


Good science is always falsifiable. Find the source of the information, and verify it for yourself.


Science is always advancing; what was true ten years ago might now be obsolete.


Is the research completed or only in progress? A hypothesis may only be a “guess” until the final conclusion.


Sometimes enthusiasm can cloud one’s good judgement. A scientist should present the research with disinterestedness.


Could there be a hidden agenda? Are the scientist hired by a neutral party? Or by the pharmaceutical companies themselves?

Lastly, just remember, we should always approach findings with a healthy dose of curiosity and skepticism. Good luck for everyone doing research!

Alzheimer’s Disease

A recent clinical trial on the hit show “Grey’s Anatomy” that was being conducted to find the cure to Alzheimer’s inspired me to write this blog post because I really don’t know much about this disease other than the fact that patients diagnosed with Alzheimer’s suffer from dementia and therefore, wanted to know more about the causes of this disease.

Alzheimer’s is a “progressive and degenerative disease” and is the most common form of dementia. The name for this disease comes from the doctor who first identified the disease: Dr. Alois Alzheimer. According to his research there are two main features to this disease: Plaques and Tangles

Plaques are made of a protein already consisting within the brain called A-beta. A patient with Alzheimer’s generally has more of this protein that accumulates in the brain. They accumulate in such high numbers that it makes it difficult for the enzymes in the brain whose job is to get rid of this protein overwhelming the whole system. Over time as they accumulate they condense into plaques that are toxic.  Researchers believe that these A-beta proteins somehow change the genetic code of the tau protein thereby promoting development of “Tangles”.

Tangles as mentioned before are made of tau protein. These are located in the nerve cells and perform key duties such as self-repair of the nervous system as well as maintaining a transport system within the nerve cells. However after these are modified by the A-beta protein they tend to pile up and create tangles. By creating these tangles the transport system of the cells is disrupted and therefore the cell dies.

The toxic plaques along with the tangles leads to the slow degeneration of cells in the brain, thereby causing the brain to shrink as seen in the following picture.

"Normal Aged brain vs Alzheimer's patient"

I hope to look into more research that has been done on the purpose of the A-beta protein as well as other further research into how doctors might proceed to deal with this disease in the future. Until then I will direct you to the following link that has more information on Alzheimer’s Disease.