The 2012 Flame Challenge Theater

Mara Grunbaum and I have entered the 2012 Flame Challenge, a contest to answer the question “What is a flame?” in a way that an 11-year-old can understand. The contest is hosted by Alan Alda and the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University.  Answers can take just about any form – writing, audio, graphics or video. I thought it would be fun to gather some of the video entries on YouTube and Vimeo in one place. Enjoy!

The Flame Challenge from Tomoji Mangus on Vimeo.

The Fabulab’s Flame Challenge from The Fabulab on Vimeo.

Flame Challenge 2012 – J. Ipsaro & J. Novatt from Jon Ipsaro on Vimeo.

The Origin of SuperFlame from Justin Stokes on Vimeo.

“What is a Flame?” answered by Astro’s Flammable Laboratory from Sam Haynor on Vimeo.


Where in the world is science journalism ? A map of science journalism outlets around the globe

Science journalism lives in our minds: its stories, arguments, data and ideas travel from brain to brain in words, pictures, podcasts and pixels. But science journalism also inhabits news rooms and magazine headquarters, film studios and sound booths around the world. This is an attempt to map those physical spaces. Mostly for fun, but also because it could be handy to have such a map.

[links to a larger version below]

Link to Map

Okay, so this is a work in progress and by no means a comprehensive map or list of science journalism outlets around the world. I realize I have neglected many outlets and I welcome any assistance improving the map.

-If you know of a science-y magazine, newspaper section, website, radio show, production company etc that you think should be included, please leave a comment or send me an email: ferris [dot] If you know the exact address of the outlet as well, that would be doubly awesome!

-There are likely at least a few mistakes among the addresses. For example, some of the addresses include PO boxes and may not pinpoint offices or headquarters. If you spot any errors, please let me know. I collected all these addresses online, but they are not always as easy to find as you might imagine – sometimes they’re hidden in obscure corners of websites.

-Finally, if anyone has any thoughts about making the map prettier and more useful, etc, I’d love to hear from you. Please feel free to use the data presented here however you like! I experimented with a number of free online mapping tools, but in the end I liked Google Maps for its ease of use and ability to map exact street addresses.

Outlet Address
ABC Sydney Science 700 Harris Street, Ultimo, Sydney, NSW, 2007, Australia
American Scientist 3106 East NC Highway 54 Research Triangle Park, NC 27709
Archaeology 36-36 33rd St., Long Island City, NY 11106
Astronomy 21027 Crossroads Circle Waukesha, WI 53186-4055
Conservation Magazine Department of Biology Box 351800 University o Washington Seattle, WA 98195-1800 USA
Cosmos 49 Shepherd St, Chippendale NSW 2008, Sydney, Australia
Die Zeit Science Speersort 1 20095 Hamburg 040 3280-0
Discover 275 7th Ave, 21st floor; New York, NY
Discovery News One Discovery Place Silver Spring, MD 20910
Focus Focus magazine, Bristol Magazines Ltd, Tower House, Fairfax Street, BRISTOL, BS1 3BN
Grist 710 Second Avenue, Suite 860 Seattle, WA 98104 USA
Guardian Science Section Kings Place, 90 York Way London N1 9GU
High Country News 119 Grand Avenue PO Box 1090 Paonia, CO 81428
Institute of Physics, Physics World Dirac House Temple Back Bristol BS1 6BE, UK
Los Angeles Times Science Section 202 W. 1st St. Los Angeles, CA 90012
Men’s Health 400 South 10th St. Emmaus, PA 18098
Mental Floss 2829 2nd Ave S # 340 Birmingham, AL 35233-2838
Mother Jones 222 Sutter Street, Suite 600 San Francisco, CA 94108
MSNBC Science/Space News 1 Microsoft Way Redmond, WA 98052
National Geographic 1145 17th Street N.W. Washington, D.C. 20036-4688
Nature 4 Crinan Street London N1 9XW
225 Bush Street Suite 1453 San Francisco CA 94104
Nymphenburger Strasse 14 D-80335 Munich
Chiyoda Building 2-37 5-6th Floor 2-37 Ichigaya Tamachi Shinjuku-ku
968 National Press Building 529 14th Street NW Washington DC 20045-1938
75 Varick St Fl 9 New York, NY 10013-1917
3525 Del Mar Heights Road PMB No. 462 San Diego CA 92130
2 rue Moreau Vincint, 37270 Véretz, France
25 First Street, Suite 104, Cambridge MA 02141
New Scientist Lacon House, 84 Theobalds Road London WC1X 8RR
225 Wyman Street Waltham MA 02451
201 Mission Street, 26th Floor, San Francisco CA 94105
Tower 2, 475 Victoria Ave Chatswood  NSW  2067
New York Times Science Times 620 8th Ave, New York, NY 10018
NOVA WGBH, One Guest Street, Boston, MA 02135
NPR Science Friday 4 West 43rd St, Suite 306, New York, New York 10036
Outside 400 Market Street Santa Fe, New Mexico 87501
Pesquisa FAPESP Joaquim Antunes St 727, Pinheiros – São Paulo, SP – Brazil 05415-012
Popular Mechanics 300 West 57 Street New York, NY 10019-5899
Popular Science 2 Park Ave, Ninth Floor New York, NY 10016
Psychology Today 115 E. 23rd St., 9th Floor New York, NY 10010
Quebec Science 1251 rue Rachel Est Montréal, QC H2J 2J9 CANADA
Quirks and Quarks CBC Radio, 205 Wellington Street W. Toronto, ON. M5V 3G7
Radio3 Scienza Via Asiago 10, Roma Italy
Radiolab 160 Varick Street New York, NY 10013-1917
Scholastic 557 Broadway, New York NY, 10012
Science 1200 New York Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20005
Bateman House, 82-88 Hills Road, Cambridge, CB2 1LQ, UK
Scienceline 20 Cooper Square New York NY 10003
Science Bulletins (American Museum of Natural History) 79th Street at Central Park West
New York, NY 10024
Science News 1719 N Street, NW, Washington, D.C. 20036-2802
Scientific American 75 Varick St Fl 9 New York, NY 10013-1917
Seed 33 Flatbush Avenue Brooklyn NY 11217
Sky and Telescope 90 Sherman St. Cambridge, MA 02140
Slate 95 Morton Street, 4th Floor, New York, N.Y., 10014
Smithsonian 600 Maryland Avenue SW, Suite 6001, Washington, DC 20024
Sydney Morning Herald Science 2/1 Darling Island Road, Pyrmont NSW 2009
Tech Media Network 470 Park Avenue South 9th Floor New York, NY 10016
Technology Review One Main Street, 13th Floor, Cambridge, MA 02142
The Economist 25 St James’s Street London, SW1A 1HG United Kingdom
The Scientist 121 W 27th Street, Suite 604 New York, NY 10001
Middlesex House 32-34 Cleveland Street London W1T 4LB
The Times (London) Eureka 3 Thomas More Square, London, E98 1XY
The Wall Street Journal Science/Health 1211 Avenue of the Americas New York, NY 10036
Wired 520 Third Street, 3rd Floor San Francisco, CA 94107 USA
4 Times Sq #19 New York, NY 10036-6518
Women’s Health 733 Third Avenue New York, NY 10017
Yale 360 204 Prospect Street 3rd Floor New Haven, CT 06511

The Mysterious Case of the Albino Red-Eyed Tree Frog

The other day I stumbled upon an intriguing picture of a red-eyed tree frog (Agalychnis callidryas) on Wikipedia:

The caption states that the frog is in “cryptic water conservation posture,” while the photo’s file name suggests it is in “camouflage mode.” What puzzled me is why a frog would turn ghostly pale on a green leaf. Not exactly inconspicuous.

So I asked Twitter:

@rowhoop, News Editor at New Scientist, said: “@ferrisjabr maybe the leaf looks like that in the UV part of spectrum, which birds (predators) are sensitive too. or maybe not.”

“@ferrisjabr Imitating bird droppings?” suggested writer, artist and editor @StanCarey

I liked these ideas so I decided to follow up with some herpetologists (scientists who study amphibians and reptiles).

Karen Warkentin, a biologist as Boston University who studies the ecology, evolution and development of frogs – including the red-eyed tree frog – responded as follows:

I don’t know that I’d trust what the image looks like all that much. The frog looks pretty washed out, maybe from flash? The frog is asleep (daytime). There’s lots of speculation but we really don’t know why these (or many) frogs change color. Red-eyed treefrogs can be darker or lighter green, but they can’t be dramatically different colors.

Ohhh…right. Flash. That does make sense.

A fellow herpetologist, James Hanken of Harvard University, independently agreed with Professor Warkentin:

I can offer two possible explanations of the strong contrast between the frog and its leafy background:

  1. The contrast is an artifact of the photographer’s camera setup.  The photographer used a close-up flash, and the bright light reflected right back at the camera lens and “washed out” the frog’s green color.  (The leaf remained dark green because it is oriented at an oblique angle to the camera lens and didn’t reflect the flash directly back at the camera.)
  2. If the strong contrast is real (which I doubt), then the frog may be better camouflaged against the leafy background when viewed in the ultraviolet or infrared spectrum, which some predators can see.
I have collected this species in the field (Costa Rica), and to me “camouflage mode” refers to the fact that the frog, by adjusting its body posture, is concealing its brightly colored flanks, thighs, toe webbing, and eyes.  By only showing its green color, these frogs truly are difficult to see when they’re sitting on a green leaf.

So it seems when red-eyed tree frogs camouflage themselves, they hunker down on a leaf and tuck away all the strikingly inked bits that make them so photogenic. They may even tune their body’s shade of green, but they probably do not turn albino on the spot. Perhaps staying so still during the hot day also helps them conserve water, as suggested in the original caption.

I guess this is yet another reason to be wary of what you read and see on Wikipedia (although I will defend its usefulness to the death! Seriously, some articles have the most amazing references and external sources: links to amazing primary sources).

I also noticed that the photographer behind this picture, one John J. Mosesso, has many nature photographs all over the web, especially in the National Biological Information Infrastructure’s Library of Images. John, are you out there? Any thoughts about this photo?

A Brief History of the Orgueil Meteorite

By now you have probably read all about the recent study in the Journal of Cosmology claiming that fossilized alien microbes exist inside a meteorite, about the undeniable eccentricity of the journal and the overwhelming skepticism and ire in the scientific community. As usual, Charlie Petit of the Knight Science Journalism Tracker rounds up a lot of great links.

Here is my reporting on the subject for New Scientist – but there are some details we couldn’t quite fit. These aren’t newsworthy details; rather, they are intriguing historical details about one of the meteorites examined in the new study: the Orgueil meteorite.

A Brief History of the Orgueil Meteorite

Just after 8 pm on May 14, 1864, an enormous fireball seared a path through the sky over southern France, announcing its arrival with terrifying thunder. As villagers investigated—some flinging open doors and sprinting outdoors, others peering cautiously from behind windows—the burning boulder lost its white-hot glow, blushed red and fractured in the earth’s atmosphere. Around 20 ink-black pieces of space rock, most smaller than your fist, smashed into the earth near Orgueil, France.

The children dropped their dolls and spinning tops. They clambered over the hills and raced each other through the vineyards towards the twisting threads of smoke that rose from the ground here and there. The adults soon followed, for this was one Easter egg hunt in which they fully intended to participate.

In wagons and baskets and the folds of aprons, the villagers collected as many pieces of rock as they could find, totaling 20 kilograms in mass we estimate today. The pieces were soft enough to cut with a knife and disintegrated in water. A piece of the black rock properly shaped and sharpened could be used to write and draw as through it were a stick of charcoal.

An illustration of a fragment of the Orgueil meteorite (Credit: Wikimedia)

Ever since, these fragments of the Orgueil meteorite—one of the most ancient meteorites ever discovered, perhaps older than the solar system—have been sliced, poked, crumbled and scrutinized by scientists, including NASA Scientist Richard Hoover, the author of the recent Journal of Cosmology study. But Hoover is by no means the first scientist to claim that the Orgueil meteorite is home to alien life.

French chemist François Stanislaus Clöez, perhaps the first scientist to examine a piece of the Orgueil meteorite, announced that it contained organic matter including carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. Immediately people began to question whether the organic compounds might have a biological origin—that is, whether they came from something that was once alive.

A painting of Louis Pasteur (Credit: Wikimedia)

Another French chemist decided to peer inside the meteorite: none other than Louis Pasteur, who had recently dismissed the theory of spontaneous generation—the idea that life routinely springs from non-life. Pasteur designed a drill that could extract samples from the meteorite’s interior while avoiding any contamination by earthly microbes, but he found nothing to suggest organisms within the rock.

In 1962, Fordham University chemist Bartholomew Nagy published a paper in Nature pointing to signs of fossilized alien microbes in the Orgueil meteorite that he thought resembeld algae. They turned out to be pollen and fungal spores that had contaminated the sample on Earth.

Following Nagy’s study, a team of Chicago researchers asked to examine a piece of the meteorite housed in a glass jar in the museum at Montauban. When they cracked open the rock they found tiny seeds. Not fossilized bacteria, not little green men, but tiny brown almond-shaped seeds.

When the researchers’ brows unfurrowed and the astonished gasps extinguished themselves, the team decided to put a couple explanations to the test: either the seeds came from a bona fide extraterrestrial plant of some kind or they had infiltrated the meteorite on earth. X-ray analysis revealed that the seeds had not been swept into the rock by a serendipitous gust or shoved inside by the impact of a crash landing—they were too deeply embedded in the very matrix of the meteorite. Still, the idea that the Orgueil meteorite was an ark of alien plant life—that it literally contained the seeds of life—was simply too incredible. So the scientists looked even closer and settled on a more satisfactory explanation, on a far more human narrative.

It seems that back in the 19th century when the meteorite first crashed, someone, perhaps motivated by the controversy surrounding spontaneous generation, involved the Orgueil meteorite in a rather elaborate hoax. The perpetrator stole the fragment in question and dampened it to make it malleable. They then took some seeds from a grassy plant indigenous to southern France, powdered them with coal dust to disguise them a bit and embedded them in the rock. After letting the meteorite dry, the cunning charlatan brushed a little glue over the rock’s surface to mimic the glossy fusion crust of a meteorite that has endured a flaming journey to earth.

A member of the grassy rush family (Credit: Wikimedia)

In all likelihood, the 19th century conman was hoping to fool some of his peers, but it seems his little joke went unnoticed until nearly a century later.

Scientists continued to study the Orgueil meteorite, but no one seems to have made any serious claims of alien life inside the fragments until—you guessed it—Richard Hoover came along. In fact, Hoover has made these claims at least three times: now, in 2011, as well as in 2004 and  2007.


(6) Nagy B, Claus G, Hennessy DJ (1962) Organic Particles Embedded in Minerals in Orgueil and Ivuna Carbonaceous Chondrites. Nature 193 (4821) p. 1129

New Year, New Scientist

Well, I should probably mention that I graduated my MA in science journalism in December 2010, moved to Boston and now work as a reporter for New Scientist magazine. And it’s already March 2011. Life: she only has one gear – Go!

On the Radio

Boomer Alley Radio invited me to speak about ecopsychology and bizarre plant life on their late September episode “Demystifying the World.” The show also features the esteemed Carl Zimmer on football, concussions and the brain and Bill Prady of “The Big Bang Theory.”

Listen here!

When Squid Fly: New Photographic Evidence

On August 2, I published an online article with Scientific American about flying squid. Not flying fish. Flying squid.

Marine biologist Silvia Maciá was boating on the north coast of Jamaica in the summer of 2001 when she noticed something soar out of the sea. At first she thought it was a member of the flying fish family—a group of marine fish that escape predators by breaking the water’s surface at great speed and gliding through the air on unusually large pectoral fins. But after tracing the creature’s graceful arc for a few seconds, Maciá realized this was no fish. It was a squid—and it was flying.

With her husband and fellow biologist Michael Robinson, Maciá identified the airborne cephalopod as a Caribbean reef squid (Sepioteuthis sepioidea)—a lithe, torpedo-shaped critter with long, undulating fins. They think the squid was startled by the noise of the boat’s outboard engine and estimated that the 20-centimeter-long mollusk reached a height of two meters above the water and flew a total distance of 10 meters—50 times its body length. What’s more, the squid extended its fins and flared its tentacles in a radial pattern while airborne, as though guiding its flight.

Macia eventually co-wrote a 2004 study in the Journal of Molluscan Studies that described several observations of flying squid, but the paper relied largely on anecdotal evidence. There were no photographs or videos.

Recently, however, on a cruise ship off the coast of Brazil, retired geologist and amateur photographer Bob Hulse captured what may be the best-ever photographic evidence of flying squid. Hulse sent the pictures to University of Hawaii oceanographer Richard Young, who passed them along to Ron O’Dor, senior scientist for the Census of Marine Life. O’Dor thinks he can analyze the photos to gain a better understanding of squid aerodynamics, which few people have been able to properly study due to lack of adequate documentation.

An abridged version of my online article will also appear in the October print issue of Scientific American, accompanied by one of Bob’s photographs. Unfortunately, due to spatial constraints, the printed magazine page cannot properly accommodate the glory of Bob’s photographs. He took his photos while aboard a cruise ship off the coast of Brazil, so he wasn’t exactly face-to-tentacle with the squid. An image cropped from such a distant image and pasted on a magazine page can only offer so much. What we need is one of those fancy setups straight out of an episode of CSI. You know, something like: ‘Computer: locate the squid; zoom in 3 billion and 4/5%! Now, identify the species. Thank you, computer. Now commence calamari conversion.”

Okay, enough of that. I have a better solution. Here are Bob’s pictures. When you click on them, the ocean should flood your browser. And then you can zoom in even further to locate the flying squid above the waves. Look for the triangular tips, the floppy fins, the fanned tentacles and the jets of water trailing the squid rockets.

Click and Zoom!

Photograph of flying squid off the coast of Brazil (Credit: Bob and Deb Hulse)

Photograph of flying squid off the coast of Brazil (Credit: Bob and Deb Hulse)

Photograph of flying squid off the coast of Brazil (Credit: Bob and Deb Hulse)