Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The hotties of science

Over the past few days there has been a bit of discussion about the place of women in science. Part of it revolves around this ill-advised post which clearly objectifies women. Creepily, in my not so humble opinion. Sheril Kirshenbaum of the Intersection responded in a very calm and rational manner, and some other bloggers have weighed in as well. I found the discussion particularly interesting given the fact that Newsweek just had an article discussing the "Beauty Advantage" and how looks do matter, more than we'd like to admit actually, and that women do have it worse. So it goes without saying, but needs to be said despite some people's objections, that everyone really should use a more critical eye towards their own verbal regurgitation's ... before they spew them into the workplace, cyberspace, the street, or wherever they happen to be at the time.

Remember, it's better to keep your mouth closed and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.

With that said, one thing that was unfortunately lost in the entire discussion is that we can talk about the hotties of science without objectifying anyone. Yes, there are many good looking men and women in science -- myself included -- but it still overlooks another important facet ... the science itself.

So with that, I would now like to present the true hotties of science, or at least the ones I can pull from the top of my head.

1. Pyrolysis. Pyrolysis is a process by which organic material is exposed to extremely high temperatures and often pressure, in the absence of oxygen. This material is broken down into several components for the generation of energy. It is a player in the emerging biofuel discussion and has the benefit of being able to use multiple feedstocks. A common utilizable energy product from pyrolysis is methane which can then be used for natural gas in homes, vehicles, workplaces, you name it. It can also be used to generate bio-oils (PDF, 42 pages) for liquid fuels. As mentioned, people have looked at a number of feedstocks including cellulose and other plant materials, such as rice husks and even coconut shells. Oh, and people have looked at cooking swine manure as well (PDF, 8 pages) with excellent results.

2. Gasification. Gasification is the dizygotic twin sister of pyrolysis. Like pyrolysis, gasification is playing a visible role in the bioenergy discussion. Pretty much anything that contains carbon can be gasified, and fossil fuels such as coal are often gasified to produce electricity. Since the process typically occurs at over 700 degrees Celsius, this is a very hot science topic indeed. There are several approaches to gasification, as well as feedstocks. Gasification of biomass (PDF, 23 pages) has been studied to a great degree (PDF, 64 pages).

3. Thermo-tolerant bacteria. Now we get into my own wheelhouse! The blood always gets pumping when talk turns to the extremophiles, groups of organisms which live in the most inhospitable of environments. From the extremes in pH and temperature, to salinity and arid environments ... places we would never expect life on earth, seemingly harbors entire communities. These organisms have been used as models for exobiology, and been used in applied science the world over. Heck, one can easily argue that if it were not for the thermophile Thermus aquaticus (from which we got Taq polymerase), we would never have experienced the genomic revolution.

4. Lasers. I blurbed about this already today, but man weaponized lasers are pretty cool/hot/awesome/no longer the stuff of science fiction alone. Maybe the end-product isn't science itself, but to get it to that point some serious applied science needed to be performed, and these systems are the end result. These directed-energy weapons (DEWs) literally evaporate their targets. That's some serious heat!

5. The Hubble Telescope and Astronomy. Ok, so the telescope itself isn't hot per se, but what it typically views generates some pretty serious heat. The core of our own star, Sol, tips the thermometer at a mere 15,000,000°C, which by all estimates is pretty hot. Launched in 1990, the Hubble Telescope continues to produce amazing pictures of our universe today. Recently, astronomers detected a "monster star" which outweighs our own sun by ~300 fold.

6. Climate Change. So, is the world really getting warmer? It's a debate that has certainly generated a lot of heat, which in and of itself warrants it's placement on this list. I wish I could say that there are things that both sides could agree on, but I'm not so sure that there are. There is plenty of research being conducted on greenhouse gases, such as nitrous oxide, methane, and carbon dioxide. Scientists continue to look into how these gases are generated, how to reduce/sequester them, and the impacts they play on the environment. From my own vantage point, these gases are all part of two important nutrient cycles, nitrogen and carbon (PDF, 33 pages). Life goes on, and one thing is for sure ... marmots are getting bigger.

7. Heat shock proteins. There is a reason life can tolerate extremes in temperatures. Some cannot handle the extremes as well as others, but we all have a way of dealing with increases and decreases. The heat shock proteins regulate the responses of cells when exposed to elevated temperatures. There are a variety of proteins which handle this chore, and they are found in a range of organisms as well, from bacteria, to insects, to mammals. In addition, some of these proteins have been manipulated to serve a biotech purpose. You have to love applied science sometimes.

So, that's but a small primer on the hotties of science. As I think of some more, I'll definitely add them to the list. If commenters wish to add to the list, provide them in the comments or send me a link to your own posts. Perhaps the most important imparted lesson from this entire mess is that if we can find it in ourselves to look beyond things such as the gender of coworkers, collaborators and peers, and instead focus on the areas of science which really matter ... we'll wind up opening doors to bigger and better things. One can always hope.

ETA: Updated on 07/22/2010 to expand the list.


Genomic Repairman said...

I saw a video about energy directed laser weapons where they put it on a small plane and were able to accurately lase a beam onto a 1 square foot target on the hood of a truck. The future rocks!

Nat Blair said...

Great post!

How about the ion channel TRPV1, which responds to increases in temperature (and to capsaicin in peppers, which is why eating them makes your mouth feel hot).

Definitely a hottie in my book. And no, it's not because I published a paper on TRPV1. ;)

Cath@VWXYNot? said...

Smokin' hot post!

GMP said...

Very cool post!

microbiologist xx said...

I much prefer your list! The other one was really creepy. In fact, I wish I hadn't even looked at it, but I just had to see what the uproar was about.