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The Super Bowl of Science

Are you a high school senior with an interest in math or science? Then you owe it to yourself to check out the Intel Science Talent Search, an annual competition for young scientists. Older readers like myself may know the program better by its former name, the Westinghouse Science Talent Search -- the competition has been running annually for 68 years, though Intel has sponsored it since 1999. In his 1991 speech to STS finalists, President George H.W. Bush famously called the competition the "Super Bowl of science."

STS winners get scholarships, a trip to Washington to network with other finalists (including a meet-and-greet that generally features the President, Vice President, and/or First Lady), laptops, and a chance to work directly with scientist mentors on their projects. This year's top winner (who received a $100,000 scholarship) was Erika DeBenedictis of New Mexico, whose project was described thusly:

Working at home and building on existing research, Erika developed an original optimizing search algorithm that discovers energy minimizing routes in specified regions of space and would allow a spacecraft to adjust its flight path en route. She believes her novel single-step method of repeated orbit refinement could work with essentially autonomous spacecraft, and may be a practical step forward in space exploration.

Not bad for a high school student, right? DeBenedictis's home page reads like a CV already.

Here's the "highlight reel" from this year's awards ceremony:

After the jump: updates on past winners, and a bit more about the history of the competition.

What Past Winners Have Done

Many STS winners have gone on to illustrious careers in science. 1950 finalist Sheldon Glashow, best known for predicting the charm quark and creating the first grand unified theory, went on to receive a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1979. You can see him in this adorable slideshow of the STS through the years. According to Intel, "Seven have gone on to win the Nobel Prize; others have been awarded the Fields Medal, the National Medal of Science, and the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship." The STS has also been called the "Baby Nobels," and for good reason -- it's an incubator for young scientists, and has awarded nearly $4 million in scholarships over its roughly seven-decade history.

Intel has also published a nice by the numbers comparison, which includes these fun stats:

2 - Number of 2009 Intel STS finalists who are varsity athletes

6 - Number of 2009 Intel STS finalists with perfect SAT scores

10 - Number of MacArthur Foundation "Genius" grants awarded to Science Talent Search finalists

70 - Percentage of Science Talent Search finalists who go on to complete an M.D. or Ph.D.

History of the STS

Founded in 1942 in partnership with Westinghouse, the STS is the most prestigious science competition for high schoolers in the US. The Society for Science & the Public gives us some perspective on the scope of this competition:

Over six decades, more than 130,000 students from U.S. high schools in all 50 states and territories have completed independent science research projects and submitted entries. Each completed entry consists of a written description of the student's independent research, plus an entry form that elicits evidence of the student's excellence and accomplishments. Over 2,600 Finalists have received more than $3.8 million in awards to support their college educations, and 18,000 Semifinalists have received millions more.

Here's a video slideshow about the STS, going back to 1942. Lots of US Presidents show up here, including Eisenhower, Nixon (when he was a congressman), Obama, and more. Bonus points for the shot near the end showing STS finalists at the Albert Einstein Memorial at the National Academy of Sciences (sadly, Einstein's statue is not sticking its tongue out).

How to Enter

Check out the Compete in the Intel Science Talent Search page for more info, or try the STS homepage for more, including sample submission forms for 2010. While 2010's competition is closed, 2011 is wide open....

If you're not in high school, check out this competition for middle schoolers. It appears to be on hold at the moment, seeking a sponsor, but the site suggests a possible restart in 2011.

For much more: check out the Society for Science & the Public's YouTube channel.

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Big Questions
What Causes Sinkholes?
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Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

This week, a sinkhole opened up on the White House lawn—likely the result of excess rainfall on the "legitimate swamp" surrounding the storied building, a geologist told The New York Times. While the event had some suggesting we call for Buffy's help, sinkholes are pretty common. In the past few days alone, cavernous maws in the earth have appeared in Maryland, North Carolina, Tennessee, and of course Florida, home to more sinkholes than any other state.

Sinkholes have gulped down suburban homes, cars, and entire fields in the past. How does the ground just open up like that?

Sinkholes are a simple matter of cause and effect. Urban sinkholes may be directly traced to underground water main breaks or collapsed sewer pipelines, into which city sidewalks crumple in the absence of any structural support. In more rural areas, such catastrophes might be attributed to abandoned mine shafts or salt caverns that can't take the weight anymore. These types of sinkholes are heavily influenced by human action, but most sinkholes are unpredictable, inevitable natural occurrences.

Florida is so prone to sinkholes because it has the misfortune of being built upon a foundation of limestone—solid rock, but the kind that is easily dissolved by acidic rain or groundwater. The karst process, in which the mildly acidic water wears away at fractures in the limestone, leaves empty space where there used to be stone, and even the residue is washed away. Any loose soil, grass, or—for example—luxury condominiums perched atop the hole in the ground aren't left with much support. Just as a house built on a weak foundation is more likely to collapse, the same is true of the ground itself. Gravity eventually takes its toll, aided by natural erosion, and so the hole begins to sink.

About 10 percent of the world's landscape is composed of karst regions. Despite being common, sinkholes' unforeseeable nature serves as proof that the ground beneath our feet may not be as solid as we think.

A version of this story originally ran in 2014.

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DNA Analysis of Loch Ness Could Reveal the Lake's Hidden Creatures
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Stakeouts, sonar studies, and a 24-hour video feed have all been set up in an effort to confirm the existence of the legendary Loch Ness Monster. Now, the Associated Press reports that an international team of scientists will use DNA analysis to learn what's really hiding in the depths of Scotland's most mysterious landmark.

The team, led by Neil Gemmell, who researches evolutionary genetics at the University of Otago in New Zealand, will collect 300 water samples from various locations and depths around the lake. The waters are filled with microscopic DNA fragments animals leave behind as they swim, mate, eat, poop, and die in the waters, and if Nessie is a resident, she's sure to leave bits of herself floating around as well.

After extracting the DNA from the organic material found in the water samples, the scientists plan to sequence it. The results will then be compared to the DNA profiles of known species. If there's evidence of an animal that's not normally found in the lake, or an entirely new species, the researchers will hopefully spot it.

Gemmell is a Nessie skeptic, and he says the point of the project isn't necessarily to discover new species. Rather, he wants to create a genetic profile of the lake while generating some buzz around the science behind it.

If the study goes according to plan, the database of Loch Ness's inhabitants should be complete by 2019. And though the results likely won't include a long-extinct plesiosaur, they may offer insights about other invasive species that now call the lake home.

[h/t AP]

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