Skip Navigation

Duke Research - November 2010

Screen shot of Anderson Cooper 360 Blog |

November 24, 2010

Animal Intelligence

As part of a package of stories on animal intelligence that was done for CNN's Anderson Cooper 360 show, correspondent Randi Kaye visited Duke a few weeks back to talk to cognitive scientists Liz Brannon and Brian Hare. (Hare's appointment is officially in Evolutionary Anthroplogy, but sometimes he's a primatologist and sometimes he's a psychologist, and sometimes he's a dog wrangler…  The guy's hard to pin down.)

Brannon showed the CNN crew the amazing math abilities of ring-tailed lemurs who operate a touch-screen computer with their wet noses to indicate that they can tell which group of dots is greater in number.

See the lemur clip here.

Hare, his dog Taz, and a student's dog, Napoleon the super-cute, ran through their paces in the Canine Cognition Center. They offered scientific proof that dogs are really smart … until they aren't.  (Randi Kaye got a little confused about Taz's gender, but he's a boy. )

See the dog clip here or you can read a CNN story about dog cognition.


Posted by klb25. 0 comments

Tags: behavior/psychology, Lemurs

screenshot from MASH

November 23, 2010

From Hair and Make-Up to the iPhone 4

When Jessica Abroms said she’d been part of the hair and makeup team for The Incredibles, she wasn’t kidding. Of course, she didn’t go at Dash’s hair with a comb and hairspray, but rather the computer animation equivalent.

Abroms, a 1998 graduate in computer science and literature, said that her experiences at Duke led her to Pixar, then to Guitar Hero 5 and now to the launch her own media company, Teatime Media.

“I followed my passions, found people with similar interests and took some risks,” she said during a computer science department lecture on Nov. 22.

As an undergraduate, Abroms interned in the City of Angels through Duke's LA film program, (now the Arts of the Moving Image program), and developed a Men in Black computer game. At the same time, movies like Toy Story were taking off.

"That’s when the Pixar seed was planted,” Abroms said. Just before graduating, she applied to the animation company.

Abroms wasn't hired, so she moved north to Carnegie-Mellon University, where she earned a masters degree in Human-Computer Interaction and created virtual worlds in Randy Pausch’s class. That got her into Dreamworks before she moved to Pixar in 2001.

As a technical director, Abroms added the details made the rough animations of films like Finding Nemo and Ratatouille seem more real, she said. She added snowflakes to fur and made sure characters' clothes stayed on when they moved. It’s that attention to detail, and the fact that the animation directors were all once animators, that makes Pixar so good, she said.

After eight years assisting with hair, make-up and sets, Abroms returned to gaming. As a hobby, she designed an app for the girl’s analog game called M.A.S.H. - Mansion, Apartment, Shack, House. Playing foretells a girl's future husband, house type and location, number of children and family pet. After development, Abroms loaded on the iTunes store and forgot about it, while she worked on Guitar Hero 5.

To her surprise, M.A.S.H. became popular, leading Abroms to reconsider her senior thesis question: Why girls stop gaming. There aren't many games for girls, that's why, she said. Designing girls' games for a phone interface, i.e. Teatime, could change that. And, if it doesn't work out, Abroms said she's happy to go back to sets, hair and make-up.

Posted by ay37. 0 comments

Tags: computer science


November 19, 2010

All wrapped up

It’s not easy being a nanontube. Yes, the small-scale carbon structures are enticing because of their unworldly, strength, quantum mechanical and lectrical properties. But the tubes have issues. First, they’re almost always in bundles, making them difficult to manipulate. And they really only like to live in water;in any other medium, their alluring characteristics disappear.

Now, Duke chemist Michael Therien and postdoctoral fellow Pravas Deria have devised a way to sort out the nanotubes' issues. The key is an uncommon polymer, poly[2,6-{1,5-bis(3-propoxysulfonicacidsodiumsalt)}naphthylene]ethynylene, that Derias designed. The polymer, or chain of molecules, untangles the bundles, then helically wraps itself around each individual nanotube, like hair wrapped around a curling iron, or like the helix of a single strand of DNA.

DNA, the blueprint of life, was, in fact, the inspiration for creating a polymer. Deria said that a single strand of DNA is highly charged, and charge was a characteristic Therien’s team thought was essential to guarantee the nanotube bundles would stay separated even in media other than water.

After several trials, the polymer worked as planned. Deria was surprised to find that the space between each helical loop on a nanotube was the same, roughly 10 nanometers. (That’s just a bit longer than a man’s whiskers will grow in the time it takes him to lift a razor to his face.) The nanotubes stayed wrapped with polymer and kept their electric properties, even when they were tested in carbon-based liquids.

That’s significant because nanotubes are important tools for creating new and better materials, Therien said. The next step will be to focus on some of the nanotubes' other issues so scientists can harness the structures' optical properties.

Posted by ay37. 1 comment

Tags: chemistry, nanotech

Palm Oil harvest in Sumatra - Hayden

November 12, 2010

The Alarming Extinction of Species

“When we think of extinction,  we refer to dinosaurs and dodos. We don’t digest the concept of extinction in present day," said television host and conservationist Jeff Corwin, during a talk at Duke on Thursday.

He was here to talk about the state of conservation of natural resources in the 21st century.

“The rate of extinction right now is almost ten thousand times the natural extinction rate,” Corwin said. The extinction  today is remarkably different from extinctions of the past in terms of causes and character. He attributes habitat loss, climate change, medicinal trade and commercialization as some major factors that are expediting the process of extinction of species today.

“We lose one species every twenty minutes. If you add up, we would have lost 30-40% of our planet’s life halfway through this century.”

He shared some startling real-life stories of disappearance of species during his expeditions.

“The Panamanian Golden Frog is no longer the national symbol for Panama. This is because sadly, they are vanishing at a fast pace. We were able to find the last one surviving in the wild.”

He added that Sumatra is projected to lose all its forests in the next ten years. This does not just affect Sumatra’s environment and wildlife, but also affects people throughout the world.

“One out of every ten everyday products that you use has palm oil in it. Sumatran forests are the biggest source of palm oil in the world, and if the forests are destroyed, our palm oil will be lost.”

Currently, the group of animals that are most impacted by extinction are amphibians. They have survived for almost 350 million years, but they are becoming endangered or extinct at a terrible rate.

Corwin still has hope, however, citing the example of the widespread conservation efforts to protect the bald eagle.

“In the 1970s, you could hardly see any bald eagles. But through extensive efforts they were conserved and delisted from the endangered species list. And now we can see them everywhere.”

Jeff Corwin’s most recent book is called 100 Heartbeats: The Race to Save Earth’s Most Endangered Species.  .

Tags: Talk, Climate, Environment, Sustainability

Posted by vm19. 2 comments

Tags: climate/global change, environment/sustainability, lecture

donut chart

November 12, 2010

The Gravity of Numbers

Gravity isn’t just for the physicists. The force, or at least the notion of it, actually influences how we interpret scientific data, so much so that when shown a donut chart, some people thought it might actually roll away, says Robert Kosara, a researcher at UNC Charlotte.

Kosara and his graduate student found that people interpret charts that had an unequal distribution of "weight,” or darker and lighter colors, as unstable. The donut can roll away because gravity can turn the color imbalance into movement. The question why or how we do this has no scientific answers, yet. Researchers in information visualization, InfoVis, should focus on building the theory of visualization as much as they focus on creating new systems and developing new techniques to represent data, Kosara argued while presenting the Nov. 12 Visualization Friday Forum lecture.

Data visualization is a standard practice in the scientific method. Changing numbers into pictures lets scientists use their human prowess with reading visual data to spot patterns, trends and outliers, Kosara says. But visualizing data is also becoming a popular trend in the media. It produces pretty pictures for publications and provides another way to tell a story.

Because scientists do not yet know how and why some visualizations work and some don’t, it’s hard to know which visualizations to use. Kosara illustrated this point with a bar graph and a line graph charting sex versus height. When shown the bar graph, subjects interpret that, on average, males are taller than females. When shown a line graph representing the same data, subjects argue that as one becomes more male, he or she, becomes taller.

“That’s bad,” Kosara says. The subjects are attaching meaning to the representation rather than the actual data. The example is an exaggeration, but sheds light on the challenge of deciding what graph or picture best represents more complex data sets. If he can determine scientifically why men do better looking at tree graphs compared to females or how people rationalize gravity in an abstract donut chart, Kosara says, it might better transform scientific numbers into real-world stories.

Posted by ay37. 0 comments

Tags: lecture, physics, science communication & education, Visualization

Tim Moore in a hole

November 4, 2010

Not Bad for a Swamp, eh?

When I think of Canada, I imagine beavers, maple syrup, hockey, and locals adding “eh?” to the end of their sentences. When McGill University's Tim Moore thinks of Canada, however, he imagines carbon cycles in the peatlands.

Moore has studied such things in the Mer Bleue (French for blue sea) peatland and conservation area for the past decade. He spoke at Duke Oct. 28 as part of the Center on Global Change seminar series.

“Peatlands are generally ignored because of their remote locations and low commercial value,” Moore said. “They also suffer from a bad reputation. When I think of the word ‘bog’, I think of being ‘bogged down’. When I think of the word ‘swamp’, I think of being ‘swamped by work’.”

But these peatlands play a key role in the planet's carbon cycle and greenhouse gas budget.

Moore's team has been measuring the carbon flow between the atmosphere and the peatlands by using eddy covariance towers that read the flux of airflow travelling through the tower between atmospheric layers.

(Learn more about eddy covariance by clicking this link, selecting “Data” in the left-hand menu, and clicking “Eddy Covariance Technique”.)

According to Moore’s research, the ground takes in an average of 20 grams of carbon per square meter every year. Data from 1998-2009 shows that net exchanges of carbon vary between 0 and 148 grams per square meter taken in by the ground every year.

Moore also measures the methane flux between the atmosphere and the ground, climate and precipitation patterns, and water table levels. In the end, it all ties back to the carbon cycle.

His team also fertilized 9-meter square plots of peatland to see what tweaking growth rates would mean for CO2 exchange on both a leaf-to-leaf level and a communal level.

The results from Moore’s tests are still being aggregated and analyzed. Of course, Moore will be continuing his research for some time, and his experiments are still young.

What he does know is that the northern peatlands play critical roles in the greenhouse gas budget, and that the peatlands themselves  have a lot of scientific potential. Not bad for a swamp, eh?

Posted by jcw46. 0 comments

Tags: climate/global change, environment/sustainability, field research, lecture


November 2, 2010

Lasers in focus

Definitions don’t seem to come easy to scientists. Consider Pluto’s planethood, or the question of what constitutes life. More recently, the definition debate has even stymied how to describe a laser.

Sure, the acronym LASER stands for Light Amplification Stimulated Emission of Radiation. But fifty years of studying amplified light sources has moved the device far beyond simple laser pointers, so much so that a large consortium of scientists could only agree that a laser is, “hard to define, but I know one when I see one,” said Warren Warren, chair of Duke’s chemistry department and a speaker at the 2010 Fitzpatrick Institute for Photonics, or FIP, symposium.

The event, held Oct. 27-28, featured talks, poster sessions and themed lab visits on Frontiers in Photonics: Science and Technology. It also celebrated the 50-year anniversary of the laser’s discovery and the 10-year anniversary of Duke’s photonics institute.

Warren, part of the Technical Advisory Committee for LaserFest, a yearlong celebration of the 50th anniversary of the laser, said dozens of scientists weighed in as the committee tried to develop a satisfactory definition of the laser for the LaserFest Website, "Up to about three months ago, on no place on the site did it say what a laser was.", after considerable scientific discussion, now defines the laser as a “device that strengthens light waves.” Some lasers have a well-directed, very bright beam with a very specific color; some have extremely short pulses. “The key feature is that the amplification makes light that is very well defined and reproducible, unlike ordinary light sources such as the sun or a lamp,” the site states.

Warren added that a definition for Congress might also include "economic engine." Ten billion dollars in laser research has enabled four trillion in technology, he said.

He, along with thoracic surgeon Thomas D’Amico and biomedical engineers Joseph Izatt and Cynthia Toth, then went on to describe the laser technologies they are developing at Duke to diagnose and treat skin, lung and esophagus cancer as well as macular degeneration and other eye diseases.

The second day of the symposium also highlighted biological and medical uses of lasers. Biomedical engineer Adam Wax, neurosurgeon Gerald Grant and radiologist James Provenzale described technologies they are testing to detect cancer cells during surgery.

The 1999 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, Ahmed Zewail, director of the Center for Physical Biology at Caltech University, provided the symposium's keynote lecture. Progress and peace would come with greater global collaboration and cooperation, beginning in science, he said. And quite possibly, with those debatable definitions.


Posted by ay37. 1 comment

Tags: biomedical engineering, cancer, computers/technology, engineering, faculty, medicine, nanotech, neuroscience, physics


November 1, 2010

Physics of Sound -- MP3 Event on Wednesday

Get out your iPod or .mp3 player or whatever portable player you’ve got. An Improv Everywhere-inspired event is happening at Duke.

The university's version of the "organized fun" is called the “Connected by Sound at Duke .mp3 Event” and will take place on Wednesday, Nov. 3 at 5:00 p.m. just outside the Chapel.

Dewey Lawson, an adjunct professor of physics and his students in the interdisciplinary first-year seminar, “Connected by Sound,” created the event to “convey how important sound is in the Duke experience,” he said. The seminar explores the science of acoustics and the connections between sound, culture and history.

The .mp3 file that leads participants through the university’s event features the acoustical properties of Duke Chapel’s 50-bell, Cameron Indoor Stadium and the Quad.

“We’re hoping that people have a good time and that we make sure people are aware of Duke's unique sounds while mixing in a little physics education,” said sophomore Nik Raju, a student in Lawson’s class and creator of the event’s Facebook page.

Anyone with a Duke NetID will be able to download the .mp3 file (27Mb, 29 minutes playing time) and install it on a portable player. Of course, the event will be “more fun if you don’t spoil it and listen to it in advance,” Raju said.

Here's more instructions to join in on the fun:

Using your Duke NetID, download the .mp3 file before Wednesday afternoon.

Load it onto your portable player.

Be outside, with a view of the Duke Chapel tower, between the chapel and Bryan Center, by 5 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 3.

After a brief musical introduction, the chapel bells will strike the hour. Press “play” exactly on the stroke of five.

Follow the instructions on the MP3, leaving your player running even if you take off your earphones during the event, to keep everyone in sync.

Download the .mp3 and have fun!



Posted by ay37. 0 comments



Keep me posted on research news. Learn more >>


All fields required