News for Nerds - The Flood Science Edition

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  • Posted by: Dom Testa|
  • 9/20/2013 |
  • 10:00 am
News for Nerds - The Flood Science Edition

Welcome back to News for Nerds! This week we'll look at the ugliest animals in the world, we'll explain NASA's plan to pay you to lie in bed all day, and we'll reveal the incredible science of 'painting tumors'. But first, let's talk about the science behind one of last week's biggest news stories.

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It rained in Colorado last week. It rained a lot. It rained so much that even the National Weather Service referred to the downpour as 'biblical', and much of the state has experienced devastating flash floods as a result.

I want to talk about what scientific factors lined up to cause such a mess in my home state, but first, let's consider some of the more astounding facts and figures related to this disaster:

  • The city of Boulder receives an average of 1.7 inches of rain in the month of September. As of September 16, Boulder had received more than 17 inches of rain this month -- nearly nine times the monthly average, and almost double the previous monthly record of 9.59 inches.
  • More than 9 inches of rain fell in the Boulder area on September 12 alone; the previous record for a single day's rainfall was 4.8 inches, way back in 1919.
  • The odds of enough rain falling in this area at one time to cause such an enormous flood is 0.1% in a given year. That, in essence, means that this is a 1-in-1,000-year flood.

So, yes, there has been a lot of devastation. But what causes such widespread flooding in the first place?

The first ingredient was a strong, slow-moving storm which formed at the upper levels of the atmosphere. That storm got trapped to the south of an unusually strong ridge of high pressure over Western Canada. With nowhere to go, it festered. The circulation around the storm tapped into a plume of extremely moist, monsoonal air coming up from Mexico that pushed up against the mountains and fell as rain -- lots and lots of rain. Winds were blowing to the northwest at about 15,000 feet, but they weren't blowing hard or fast enough to move the storm out of the area. The storms lingered much longer than they normally would.

All of this was exacerbated by some geographical (and geological) factors. Various parts of Colorado are prone to flooding, as we've seen with the Big Thompson flood of 1976, which claimed the lives of more than 140 people. Boulder, in particular, is situated precariously at the mouth of a canyon from which a major creek bisects the middle of town. When you factor in the burn scars left over from years of widespread forest fires throughout Colorado, it all adds up to a pretty troubling week for residents of the Centennial State.

Keep in mind that donations to great outfits like the Colorado Red Cross can go a long way in helping people whose lives have been touched by these floods.

- from Time and USA Today

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This just in: brain surgery is hard.

In fact, when you think about all the challenges involved in operating on a patient's brain, it's kind of a miracle that we're able to do it effectively at all. Sure, an MRI can show a surgeon where, say, a brain tumor is located. But seeing that on an MRI and locating it in real life are two very different challenges. Even the most gifted surgeons can miss small chunks of tumors. Often, healthy cells get removed by mistake, leaving patients with movement problems or memory problems or vision problems. It's a challenge.

But hang on, because this is actually a happy story -- or at least an optimistic one. A doctor from Seattle's Children's Hospital named James Olson has come up with a solution to this problem. He calls it Tumor Paint.

Tumor Paint is made up of two parts. One is a chlorotoxin, which is a protein that attaches itself to the chloride channels on a cell surface. The other part is a dye that lights up (think fluorescence) when you shine a light on it. This particular substance - for some reason, still unknown - likes to grab on to tumor cells, but not healthy cells.

Put it together, and what you get is the ability to inject this Tumor Paint into a patient's bloodstream, and wait for it to attach itself to the tumor -- and subsequently light up. This should allow surgeons to be much more precise when removing tumors from the brain, and there's already speculation that this will eventually give doctors the ability to perform a less-invasive 'keyhole surgery', like the kind we typically see on knee or appendix operations.

If that's not enough, check out this video. You'll be amazed at the role that a deadly scorpion plays in this medical miracle.

Bringing Light | Bert Klasey, Chris Baron & James Allen Smith from Focus Forward Films on Vimeo.

- from NPR

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And here are a couple other cool science stories you might enjoy:

  • As a society, we really seem to enjoy lists and rankings -- the top 10 movies of the year, the best albums of all time, the worst-dressed celebrities, and so on. Well, here's a fun one: it's a list of the top 20 ugliest animals in the world. Wait until you see #1, the Blobfish.
  • And finally, NASA wants to pay you to $10,000 to lie around in bed all day. Hey, if it's in the name of science, I guess I gotta do what I gotta do, right?

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That's all for now! I'll be back with more News for Nerds next week, but be sure to follow me on Facebook and Twitter, and to sign up for the free e-Newsletter so that you can properly get your nerd on every single month! And please send any juicy News for Nerds tips to me right here!

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