In the year since we last presented these awards, both the world and the Web have changed in dramatic ways. The spheres of science and politics have become seemingly inextricable, forcing biologists to go to the mat with policy-makers over the issue of teaching intelligent design in school. The influence of "citizen journalist"-penned blogs has become a driving force behind the dissemination of information. And, most recently, the devastation caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita has sparked discussion of whether global warming is responsible for the recent increase in storm intensity. The implications of all these developments loomed large as we chose our winners for this year.
A lively "virtual tavern" for discussing and combating the antievolution movement; a blog written by a collective of maverick neuroscientists with more than just neurons and synapses on their minds; a virtual trip through the solar system, compliments of NASA; and a site that promises to teach the finer points of relativity in less time than it takes to eat a sandwich are among this year's selections, which follow below in no particular order. Did we miss your favorite? Drop us a line and nominate it for next year. Happy surfing!
Special thanks to Melissa Kirsch for her assistance in producing this section
The Whole Brain Atlas
Ever wished you could really get inside someone's brain? Look no further: thanks to Harvard Medical School's mind-blowingly comprehensive neuroimaging site, you'll view MRI, CT and other tomographic (from the Greek tome, meaning "slice") images of every part of the brain. What's more, the site also presents technologically astounding images of various types of strokes, tumors, degenerative disorders and infectious diseases as they affect the brain over time. An indispensable resource for doctors, med students and curious brainiacs everywhere.
Science journalist Carl Zimmer's "The Loom" takes on "life, past and future," with thoughtful, original commentary and in-depth explorations focused on evolution, but touching on other areas of biology as well. Unlike many bloggers, whose entries often seem random and unedited, Zimmer takes his time, discoursing elegantly and accessibly on such topics as how viruses contributed genes necessary for our survival and the coevolution of flowers and insects. Sparing pedantry for true enthusiasm, Zimmer educates, jests, muses and theorizes on matters large (the origin of species) and small (the relevance of word puzzles to the origin of species), enchanting readers with every post.
El Nio Theme Page
Learn all about the oft-invoked phenomena El Nio and La Nia, characterized by changing ocean temperatures in the equatorial Pacific, that cause weather repercussions around the globe. View a QuickTime animation of El Nio's temperature fluctuations. Learn how the Tropical Atmosphere Ocean Project recognizes an El Nio using moored buoys. And explore the effects that these disruptions in the ocean-atmosphere system have wrought, from drought in the western Pacific to increased rainfall and flooding in the southern U.S. and Peru.
This site offers an exciting and comprehensive database of film and computer-enhanced images of living cells and organisms. Watch a time-lapse movie of E. coli getting wiped out by T4 bacteriophage, or witness an informative animated depiction of cell mitosis--all clips come with enthusiastic, easy-to-understand explanations. Interactive modules include "How Big Is A?" in which you can make a visual comparison of the sizes of a lymphocyte and a human hair and "Cancer Cell Cam," wherein you'll watch a culture of real melanoma cells divide in almost-real time.
Solar System Exploration
NASA's Solar System Exploration brings right to your desktop the planets, asteroids, comets and all the other celestial and man-made bodies in the sun's domain. Start with the informative articles on each planet, accompanied by astounding photos taken from space. From there, travel deeper into the site's myriad offerings, including videos, hi-res technology images and downloadable posters. Keep track of all NASA's current missions on detailed microsites, make a robotic exploration of space on an interactive timeline, or head for the kids' department, where little ones learn to build their own Mars orbiters.
The National Inventors' Hall of Fame Web site honors the country's most esteemed inventors with bios, photos and explanations of their inventions?impact on society. Meet such luminaries as agricultural chemist George Washington Carver, who developed crop rotation methods for conserving soil nutrients; and Patsy Sherman, inventor of the textile protector Scotchguard. Be sure to check out the NIHF's contest for collegiate inventors and don't miss the step-by-step tutorial on how to patent that brilliant idea you've been sitting on.
Einstein spent decades trying to understand relativity. Thanks to the efficient folks at the University of New South Wales, you can do it in just five minutes. The site is divided into five sections: Galileo, Maxwell, Einstein, Time Dilation and E=mc2, each featuring a one-minute (or less!) multimedia movie on a major player or principle of the spacetime game. Hosted by fast-talking physicist Joe Wolfe, the movies offer quick overviews and quirky animation, plus links to more in-depth articles on the topic at hand.
The Panda's Thumb
If it's in the media and related to evolution, you'll find it posted, dissected and debated on this lively and informative watchdog blog. Devoted to debunking all existing and nascent theories related to the anti-evolution movement, the site's contributors comprise a passel of the world's most vigilant and passionate biologists, geneticists, students and concerned citizens for whom stemming the tide of creationism and its offshoots is a full time job. The general public can join the fray in the "After the Bar Closes" forum, where political, religious and personal evolutionary arguments are given a full dressing-down by the site's rowdy, articulate devotees.
A refreshing antidote to the political and economic slants that commonly color and distort news coverage of topics like the greenhouse effect, air quality, natural disasters and global warming, Real Climate is a focused, objective blog written by scientists for a brainy community that likes its climate commentary served hot. Always precise and timely, the site's resident meteorologists, geoscientists and oceanographers sound off on all news climatological, from tropical glacial retreat to "doubts about the advent of spring."
For anyone who ever fell asleep in their own drool while trying to read a neuroscience textbook, welcome to Mind Hacks, Tom Stafford and Matt Webb's riveting companion blog to their book of the same name, which takes a decidedly fun approach to neuroscience. Emphasizing an empirical approach to understanding one's own brain, the site reports on the latest developments in such areas as reasoning, memory, attention and language, plumbing the depths of journals and magazines, obscure Web sites and personal experience. A hearty banquet results: the musings of a man mistaken for a sex bot, an interview with a software developer, and reflections on why we laugh are all on the highly unpredictable and entertaining menu.
Although unlikely to cure your arachnophobia, spider specialist Rod Crawford's site does shed some rational light on those dreaded creepy-crawlies. Myths are presented (all spiders make webs; house spiders should be kindly put "back outside") and systematically debunked (webs are useless to the 50 percent of spiders who hunt their prey; house spiders are actually happiest in your house). Finally, some peace of mind for those who fear a brown recluse might lay eggs in their cheeks, resulting in a faceful of baby spiders: rest easy--another myth!
Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy
Focusing on public health preparedness, infectious diseases, biosecurity and food security, CIDRAP's Web site is a comprehensive, up-to-the-minute resource on all news related to epidemiology. The site features the organization's own reports on everything from the latest avian flu outbreak to new developments in anthrax detection. It also contains a continually updated list of links to related articles in scientific journals, government reports and other sources.
In this age of stem-cell research debates, senators advocating the addition of "intelligent design" to school curricula, and bureaucrats arguing against the need for endangered species protection, science is lucky to have such a staunch ally in acclaimed journalist Chris Mooney. His blog concentrates on the intersection of science and politics, providing a constant critique of how conservative policy wonks misrepresent scientific fact. Equally relevant are his amusing rebuttals to critical reviews of his recent book, The Republican War on Science, wherein he plays a starring role in his own ongoing discussion.
Cornell Ornithology Lab: All About Birds
For dyed-in-the-feathers ornithologists and binocular-newbies alike, a beautifully designed site covering all aspects of birding, including identification, gear selection, conservation efforts, location scouting and even a detailed guide on how to attract the winged voyagers to your own yard. Most impressive and useful is the field guide--sortable alphabetically or taxonomically--that includes gorgeous photos, detailed descriptions, "cool facts," audio tracks of birdsongs, and a host of other info that will have you telling the recently rediscovered ivory bill (the largest woodpecker north of Mexico) from an imperial (the largest woodpecker in the world) in no time flat.
San Francisco's Exploratorium Museum offers a series of delightful and beautifully designed microsites devoted to revealing the science behind our favorite sports. You'll try your hand at hitting a virtual 90-mph baseball pitch, calculate the aerodynamic drag necessary to keep you cycling at constant velocity and even watch a video of professional skateboarders performing daredevil tricks--with each kickflip and nolie explained by an Exploratorium staff physicist. Don't miss the Q and A section, which reveals the answers to such constant queries as "Why do I feel sore the day after exercising?" and "How high can I jump?"
Extra! Extra! Read all about the Devonian Period, a.k.a. the Age of Fishes, in this fascinating "newspaper." Committed to providing "all the news that's in the record" on the ancestors of modern tetrapods, the Devonian Times traces the evolution of four-limbed land dwellers from fish, examining the fossils and paleoenvironmental data relevant to this most marvelous evolutionary metamorphosis.
Geared toward budding young naturalists, this site features a series of units on topics as diverse as the habits of house mice, skin burns inflicted by wild parsnip plants and the causes for leaves changing color in autumn. Each unit, culled from categories including "Creepy-Crawlies," "Mammals" and "Ecology," is available in both a quick-read version and a longer format, and includes brightly hued drawings, experiments and activities. As entertaining as it is edifying, the "Ask a Naturalist" section offers students the opportunity to consult a pro on pressing questions like "Why can't all maggots survive on dead tissue?"
NASA Hurricane 2005: A Hurricane Resource Site
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, predicted to be the costliest natural disaster in American history, NASA's hurricane resource center for 2005 is obviously a crucial resource for both climatologists and concerned citizens. Educational articles on a variety of subjects--such as the link between ocean heat and hurricane intensity in the Gulf and new imaging systems that permit examination of tropical rainfall from a 3-D perspective--bolster the site's incomparable collection of satellite photos of the year's storms and the damage they wrought.
Welcome to Amazing Space, where starstruck students of all ages can while away light-years pelting comets at Jupiter, falling into black holes and building the Milky Way piece by piece. Thanks to the marvels of Flash animation, the greatest findings of the Hubble Space Telescope are made vivid and interactive--learning astronomy has never been so engrossingly fun. Educators will find a vast trove of classroom resources, while their charges will thrill to such activities as hoarding solar system trading cards and ogling Hubble photos of the galaxy.
Listen up! Aimed at scientists and musicians alike, this site offers a panoply of resources on the sound of music. From answers to rudimentary questions like "What is a decibel?" to the physics of the didgeridoo; from audio files of concert musicians playing clarinet concertos to detailed explanations of cochlear implants, "Music Acoustics" is a compelling and harmonious compendium of research at the crossroads of physics and music.
Deciphering the Genetic Code
Watson and Crick identified the double-helix structure of DNA in the early 1950s, but the question of how DNA's information is translated into proteins wasn't answered until a decade later by Marshall Nirenberg. For "cracking the code," or figuring out the sequencing of nucleotide bases to identify amino acids, Nirenberg went on to become the first National Institutes of Health intramural scientist to win the Nobel Prize. This site lovingly chronicles the history of Nirenberg's achievements, including the contributions of his colleagues, the instruments he used and the overall importance of his work to the study of genetics.
Aspiring Gregor Mendel? Weekend gardener? No matter how green your thumb, you'll find everything you need to further your plant studies in this all-encompassing guide to the world of botany. The site acts a clearinghouse, linking to the best resources and articles on such topics as paleobotany, species identification, composting and pathology, and applied sciences like agronomy and forestry. Of particular note is the terrific "Botany for Kids" department, which links to fun projects and resources including a wildflower coloring book and a photographic exploration of "Fun Facts about Fungi."
Kung Fu Science
Meet Chris, a kung fu black belt who's traveled the world learning from the sport's most esteemed masters. Meet Michelle, who's working on her Ph.D. in atmospheric physics. Watch them go head-to-head and hand-to-hand in order to deconstruct the physics behind this ancient martial art. Their mission: to use Chris' brawn and Michelle's brains to enable Michelle to break three pine boards with a single hand strike. The site's impeccable design, live-action documentaries of their progress and investigative journalism-style voice overs make for a riveting adventure. You'll never watch a Jackie Chan movie in the same way again!
If the term "flight history" for you evokes vague images of the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk, then direct your glider toward this extensive catalog of everything aviation. The site's highlights include a photo archive of biplanes, bombers, crashes and life on board; a database of different aircraft specifications organized by make and model; and a painstakingly assembled story archive, in which planes like the Messerschmitt Bf 109 and topics like the "Birth of the National Air Force" are given the attention of epic literature.