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These Flowers Change Color on Demand

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In the future, your garden might change colors every day. That’s if a Colorado-based company can meet its goal of designing a petunia that goes from pink to blue and back again with the sun’s rhythms. 

“We’re gardeners and we thought, ‘A color-changing flower? That would be pretty sweet to have in the garden,’” says Keira Havens, the CEO of Revolution Bioengineering. She and her partner Nikolai Braun are raising money through an Indiegogo campaign to create a new kind of flower they’re calling “Petunia Circadia.”

“All plants have circadian rhythms like people and animals where they kind of follow the sun,” Havens says. In the “Petunia Circadia,” the flower’s pigment molecules will be linked to this daily rhythm, causing it to change colors every 12 hours or so entirely on its own. 

This sounds like science fiction, but it’s not far off. Havens and Braun have already engineered a petunia that goes from white to red on command when given a sip of beer. Why beer? The color change is activated by ethanol, and alcohol is a good source of this stuff. “It’s an easy molecule to use and it’s pretty ubiquitous,” Havens says. “The whole point was to make something everyone can use.” These beer-drinking flowers are a gift for backers of the Indiegogo campaign. A contribution of $42 gets you a single plant; additional contributions get you more. They’ll arrive white and, once given a drop of beer, turn red over 24 hours and remain that color for about a week, or until watered again with regular H2O. The catch? Shipping isn’t set to start until the spring of 2017.

These shade-shifting flowers are a poster-child for a larger mission: raising awareness about genetic engineering, and removing some of the stigma that comes with it. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are mired in controversy, which Havens says is hampering potentially valuable research. Case in point: She turned to Indiegogo for fundraising because no horticultural company wanted to be associated with the GMO drama. “There’s this unnecessary fear around GMOs,” she says. “There’s a lot of confusion about what the technology is and what it does and what it can do. You can use it to do whatever you want, so we wanna make beautiful things with it.” She says biotechnology could someday be used to create new smells for flowers, or polka-dotted petals. 

Revolution Bioengineering is working with British artist and designer Helen Storey to create a dress that incorporates the color-changing flowers that will be on display in London next summer. “It will be a commentary, and start a discussion on how what society does impacts nature and how nature can come back and inform society,” Havens says.  

The campaign sits at around $18,400 and has a long way to go to reach its $75,000 goal by April 9. 

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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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iStock

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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