Twas the week before Christmas, and Rochester’s blogger was very busy

The University of Rochester has started a blog similar to Egghead called The Science Sideshow. Today they get a hat tip and an extra glass of eggnog for a pastiche of “A visit from St Nicholas” which crams in links to what seems like every science and medical story they’ve done this year. Not all of which have much to do with Christmas, although I like the holiday safety tips based on examples from movies.

Virgin dragon to give birth

Komodo dragonA Komodo dragon raised in captivity at a zoo in England is set to give birth over the holidays, despite never having mated or even being in contact with a male dragon. Flora, an eight-year old reptile, is expecting eight bouncing male baby dragons over the holidays. Another unmated Komodo dragon at London Zoo produced four live young earlier this year, according to a report in Nature.

Brad Shaffer, a professor of evolution and ecology at UC Davis who studies the evolution and genetics of reptiles and amphibians, says that there are several examples of “virgin birth” or parthenogenesis in other lizards and snakes, but not in the family of lizards to which Komodo dragons belong.

A Bell prize for BlueGene/L

A team led by Francoi Gygi, professor of applied science, was awarded the 2006 Gordon Bell Prize for Peak Performance last month for their work using the BlueGene/L supercomputer at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory for simulations of molybdenum. Gygi wrote the Qbox code for running applications on BlueGene/L while a researcher at the Livermore lab.

The Gordon Bell prizes recognize groundbreaking performance in computer applications. A single prize is awarded annually in up to four categories. This year’s prizes were presented during SC’06, “the international conference for high performance computing, networking, storage and analysis.”

The giant lemons of Lodi

Giant LemonA Lodi man’s backyard lemon tree decided to go a little crazy this year and started producing monster four-pound lemons. Diane Barrett, an extension specialist on fruits and vegetables, says she’s never heard of such big fruit but that overwatering or selective pruning could be contributing causes.

Perhaps it’s the Food of the Gods (e-text; here’s the movie poster).

The dawn of time

Spitzer imageThe earliest images yet of the Universe have been released by NASA. They were taken with the Spitzer space telescope. After masking out more recent objects in the foreground (grey blobs in this image), the orange and yellow patterns show clumps of the first objects to form in the Universe, which were either giant stars or black holes, according to NASA’s press release.

Waiting for the robot farmer

Why don’t US farmers automate tasks instead of employing immigrant labor? That’s the question raised by a Wall Street Journal article today. Machines would reduce the need for human labor, and are also easier to keep clean. But they are not very good at handling lettuces with the right care, or spotting a ripe orange from an unripe one. UC Davis ag economist Philip Martin tells the Journal he could not find any examples of US industry working to replace immigrants with machines in a recent survey. Washington is sending signals that the supply of cheap labor will continue, he says.

Where does E. coli come from?

The Scripps-Howard News Service has a story about Edward “Rob” Atwill’s new project to track the source of E. coli contamination in vegetable crops in California. At least nine national outbreaks have been traced back to the Salinas valley, the national salad bowl, in recent years. Cattle graze in the surrounding hills, and bacteria from their manure could be washing into waterways. Or it could be coming from feral pigs, windblown dust, domestic animals … E. coli can live in the gut of almost any mammal.

Women in Science and Engineering: Miles to go

The ‘Science’ section of today’s New York Times leads with a major article about women in science and engineering. The piece is built around a symposium held at Rice University this fall. The keynote speaker was Deb Niemeier, director of the John Muir Institute at UC Davis and a professor of civil and environmental engineering.

Niemeier talked about the importance of mentoring for female scientists, according to the Times report.

“If your adviser is not going to help you with a strong network, form a network of your own. Pick out some women you would like to get to know, who have scholarly reputations, and get to know them,” she said.

More on icy wastes

UC Davis graduate student Simone Sebalo will be on Capital Public Radio’s Insight show on Monday, talking about her work introducing composting toilets to a remote Alaskan village.

Alaska is a difficult place to find environmental solutions to waste disposal, Sebalo says. The “waste disposal system” may mean carrying buckets to a hole in the permafrost.

The show airs Monday, 2-3 pm on 90.9 FM in the Sacramento region, or listen over the internet at

The plume on Saturn’s moon

EnceladusMore interplanetary news: Also in today’s issue of Science is a paper with a new explanation of the plume, or geyser, erupting from Enceladus, one of the moons of Saturn. The Cassini spacecraft photographed the plume erupting from the south pole of the moon, only 300 miles across, last year.

The initial explanation for the plume was a reservoir of liquid water beneath the ice that covers Enceladus. Under pressure, the water could break through the surface and erupt into space.