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This Sixth-Grade Science Fair Project Shocked Scientists [Plus a Controversy]

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Florida has a lionfish problem. This menacing creature, which comes decorated with venomous spines, is an invasive species threatening the state’s habitat and wildlife. Until now, researchers thought the fish only thrived in the salty waters off Florida’s coasts. But a 6th grader’s science fair project proves otherwise.

"Scientists were doing plenty of tests on them, but they just always assumed they were in the ocean," 13-year-old Lauren Arrington told NPR. "So I was like, 'Well, hey guys, what about the river?'"

Yeah, guys, what about it? (Any 13-year-old who has the candor to address scientists with “hey guys” is already a winner in my book.) Lauren, a Florida native, wanted to know if the fish could survive in freshwater. So, with a little help from her ecologist dad, she set out for answers. She placed six different lionfish in six different tanks. Like any good scientist, Lauren was sure to have one control fish, which got to hang out in saltwater during the experiment. Over about a week, she slowly lowered the rest of the tanks’ salinity.

We express salinity by the amount of salt found in 1000 grams of water. So, one gram of salt equals a salinity of 1 parts per 1000. The average ocean salinity is 35 parts per 1000. Lauren lowered the salinity in her test tanks to 6 parts per 1000 and was surprised to find that her fish were still alive and well. She might have lowered the salinity further, but she didn’t want to kill the fish.

The lionfish has no natural predator on the Florida coast, so the fact that it can survive in freshwater means ecologists now know they must keep lionfish from migrating into the area’s rivers lest they do even more damage.

Lauren’s findings caught the eye of Craig Layman, an ecology professor at North Carolina State University. He replicated Lauren's results in a study published in the science journal Environmental Biology of Fishes. Lauren got a shout out in the acknowledgments.

UPDATE

But there’s a controversy brewing over whether Lauren’s project is authentic. A marine biologist named Zack Jud claims he published work back in 2011 [PDF] proving the lionfish’s tolerance for low salinity. His former supervisor, he says, is a close friend of Lauren’s family. On his Facebook page, Jud writes that "At this stage in my career, this type of national exposure would be invaluable...if only my name was included in the stories.”

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History
The Queen of Code: Remembering Grace Hopper
By Lynn Gilbert, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Grace Hopper was a computing pioneer. She coined the term "computer bug" after finding a moth stuck inside Harvard's Mark II computer in 1947 (which in turn led to the term "debug," meaning solving problems in computer code). She did the foundational work that led to the COBOL programming language, used in mission-critical computing systems for decades (including today). She worked in World War II using very early computers to help end the war. When she retired from the U.S. Navy at age 79, she was the oldest active-duty commissioned officer in the service. Hopper, who was born on this day in 1906, is a hero of computing and a brilliant role model, but not many people know her story.

In this short documentary from FiveThirtyEight, directed by Gillian Jacobs, we learned about Grace Hopper from several biographers, archival photographs, and footage of her speaking in her later years. If you've never heard of Grace Hopper, or you're even vaguely interested in the history of computing or women in computing, this is a must-watch:

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science
Why Are Glaciers Blue?
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The bright azure blue sported by many glaciers is one of nature's most stunning hues. But how does it happen, when the snow we see is usually white? As Joe Hanson of It's Okay to Be Smart explains in the video below, the snow and ice we see mostly looks white, cloudy, or clear because all of the visible light striking its surface is reflected back to us. But glaciers have a totally different structure—their many layers of tightly compressed snow means light has to travel much further, and is scattered many times throughout the depths. As the light bounces around, the light at the red and yellow end of the spectrum gets absorbed thanks to the vibrations of the water molecules inside the ice, leaving only blue and green light behind. For the details of exactly why that happens, check out Hanson's trip to Alaska's beautiful (and endangered) Mendenhall Glacier below.

[h/t The Kid Should See This]

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