How to build your dragon — with science
WASHINGTON, D.C. — How would you build a dragon? Maybe it would be red or black or green with shining scales. It could slither along the ground, or take to the air. It would breathe fire or ice or spit venom.
But that’s just what a dragon might look like. For a young scientist, that’s not good enough. How big is the dragon? How large do the wings need to be to make the animal fly? How do its legs work? How does it breathe fire? What are the scales made of? Maybe it’s not even alive, but a mechanical dragon buzzing through the sky.
Last year, as part of the judging process for the Regeneron Science Talent Search, finalists were tasked with designing a dragon, bringing science to fantasy. This yearly competition brings 40 high school seniors from across the United States here, to Washington, D.C., for a week. (Society for Science & the Public founded the competition and Regeneron — a company that develops treatments for diseases such as cancer and allergies — now sponsors it. Society for Science & the Public also publishes Science News for Students and this blog.) While the finalists are here, they share their winning science fair projects with the public and compete for almost $2 million in prizes.
But the competition isn’t a typical science fair. Competitors are challenged to think like a scientist and apply scientific concepts in new ways. To get a peek into the minds of these talented young scientists, we asked some of this year’s 40 finalists to tackle the dragon question. These high school seniors showed that even something as wild as a dragon can be designed with scientific knowledge and understanding.
We have liftoff
“When I think of a dragon, I’m thinking of a large, reptilian creature with large wings and [that is] able to fly,” says Benjamin Firester. The 18-year-old at Hunter College High School in New York City, N.Y., would base his dragon on a pterosaur. That’s a type of flying reptile that lived at the time of the dinosaurs. His dragon, he says, “would be thin, with very large wings and hollow bones.”
Large wings would help the animal generate lift — an upward force to get the dragon in the air. Hollow bones would help as well. They’d make the dragon lighter and easier to get off the ground.
Hollow bones are a key feature in birds and help them to fly. Sarah Gao, 17, decided to “bioengineer a very large bird.” The senior at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Md., says she would combine the DNA — molecules that give cells instructions — from an ancient flying reptile such as a pterosaur with a modern bird. That, she reasoned, might produce a large flying reptile.
But not all the dragons the finalists designed were living and breathing. “I’ve done some work with drones,” notes Muhammad Rahman, 17. He’s a senior at Westview High School in Portland, Ore. Muhammad is an engineer and decided to make a mechanical dragon. He would use remote-controlled aircraft to make his beast take to the air. “You could make a dragon [sculpture] flap its wings and move like a bird,” he says, but it would take a lot of effort. Instead, he’d use drones to do the lifting, and the dragon’s wings would be just for appearances. “Engineering is about being efficient,” he says. “It’s about trying to make do with what you have.”
Figuring out how to make that dragon breathe fire is a little less straightforward. For his mechanical dragon, Muhammad said he would have natural gas, which is used in some stoves, provide the flame.
A living model for breathing fire is a bit difficult to find, since none are known to exist. However, that did not deter Alice Zhang, 17. The senior from Montgomery Blair High School got her inspiration from bombardier beetles. These bugs mix two chemicals when threatened. The chemicals have an explosive reaction that the beetle shoots out its rear end. “I would take that and put it into a lizard somehow,” she says. (The resulting mix would have to come out of the dragon’s mouth, though, and not the other end.)
If you wanted real flame, Benjamin says, methane might be a good choice. This is a chemical that animals such as cows produce as they digest their food. Dragons could produce methane, he reasons, and a spark could set the chemical ablaze.
But no one wants a dragon to get toasted by its own flames. “I would implant something” that would produce fire in an engineered bird, says Sarah. The flames would go through a fire-resistant tube inside her dragon, helping the creature escape unscathed.
If dragons were real, they’d have to fit in somewhere in the environment. What would it eat? And where would it live?
Nitya Parthasarathy, 17, is a senior at Northwood High School in Irvine, Calif. She based her dragon on large lizards called komodo dragons. Komodo dragons make their living ambushing prey and scavenging animals that have already died. But they can’t fly. To get in the air, Nitya’s dragon would be a lot smaller, she says, “about the size of a bald eagle.” Her dragon’s diet would be smaller, too. “Like birds and reptiles, it could eat insects.”
Natalia Orlovsky, 18, also doesn’t see why a dragon has to be large. “I would build a small dragon. I’m thinking about the size of my palm,” says the senior at Garnet Valley High School in Glen Mills, Penn. A small dragon, she explains, wouldn’t suffer from biomagnification — a process by which the concentration of a chemical increases as it moves up the food chain.
Natalia worried that a top predator like a dragon might end up with a lot of pollutants from its food. Those pollutants might harm her dragon’s health. But a tiny one wouldn’t suffer that way. And it wouldn’t need to be a predator, either. “I’m thinking it would be a pollinator,” Natalia says. She would like it to help pollinate crops. Her dragon would live on nectar, and look much like a hummingbird.
And such a tiny fire-breathing creature would have a side benefit. “If they befriend people,” Natalia notes, “they’d be useful in toasting s’mores.”
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beetle An order of insects known as Coleoptera, containing at least 350,000 different species. Adults tend to have hard and/or horn-like “forewings” which covers the wings used for flight.
bioengineer Someone who applies engineering to solve problems in biology or in systems that will use living organisms.
biomagnification The process by which the concentration of a chemical increases as it moves up the food chain. Typically, this occurs when a predator species feeds upon prey contaminated with that chemical.
birds Warm-blooded animals with wings that first showed up during the time of the dinosaurs. Birds are jacketed in feathers and produce young from the eggs they deposit in some sort of nest. Most birds fly, but throughout history there have been the occasional species that don’t.
cancer Any of more than 100 different diseases, each characterized by the rapid, uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells. The development and growth of cancers, also known as malignancies, can lead to tumors, pain and death.
cell The smallest structural and functional unit of an organism. Typically too small to see with the unaided eye, it consists of a watery fluid surrounded by a membrane or wall. Depending on their size, animals are made of anywhere from thousands to trillions of cells. Most organisms, such as yeasts, molds, bacteria and some algae, are composed of only one cell.
chemical A substance formed from two or more atoms that unite (bond) in a fixed proportion and structure. For example, water is a chemical made when two hydrogen atoms bond to one oxygen atom. Its chemical formula is H2O. Chemical also can be an adjective to describe properties of materials that are the result of various reactions between different compounds.
develop (in biology) To grow as an organism from conception through adulthood, often undergoing changes in chemistry, size and sometimes even shape. (as with towns) The conversion of wildland to host communities of people. This development can include the building of roads, homes, stores, schools and more. Usually, trees and grasslands are cut down and replaced with structures or landscaped yards and parks.
digest (noun: digestion) To break down food into simple compounds that the body can absorb and use for growth. Some sewage-treatment plants harness microbes to digest — or degrade — wastes so that the breakdown products can be recycled for use elsewhere in the environment.
DNA (short for deoxyribonucleic acid) A long, double-stranded and spiral-shaped molecule inside most living cells that carries genetic instructions. It is built on a backbone of phosphorus, oxygen, and carbon atoms. In all living things, from plants and animals to microbes, these instructions tell cells which molecules to make.
drone A remote-controlled, pilotless aircraft or missile.
ecological See ecology.
ecology A branch of biology that deals with the relations of organisms to one another and to their physical surroundings. A scientist who works in this field is called an ecologist.
engineer A person who uses science to solve problems. As a verb, to engineer means to design a device, material or process that will solve some problem or unmet need.
engineering The field of research that uses math and science to solve practical problems.
environment The sum of all of the things that exist around some organism or the process and the condition those things create. Environment may refer to the weather and ecosystem in which some animal lives, or, perhaps, the temperature and humidity (or even the placement of components in some electronics system or product).
fire The burning of some fuel, creating a flame that releases light and heat.
force Some outside influence that can change the motion of a body, hold bodies close to one another, or produce motion or stress in a stationary body.
high school A designation for grades nine through 12 in the U.S. system of compulsory public education. High-school graduates may apply to colleges for further, advanced education.
implant A device manufactured to replace a missing biological structure, to support a damaged biological structure, or to enhance an existing biological structure. Examples include artificial hips, knees and teeth; pacemakers; and the insulin pumps used to treat diabetes. Or some device installed surgically into an animal’s body to collect information on the individual (such as its temperature, blood pressure or activity cycle).
insect A type of arthropod that as an adult will have six segmented legs and three body parts: a head, thorax and abdomen. There are hundreds of thousands of insects, which include bees, beetles, flies and moths.
lift An upward force on an object. It may occur when an object (such as a balloon) is filled with a gas that weighs less than air; it can also result when a low-pressure area occurs above an object (such as an airplane wing).
lizard A type of reptile that typically walks on four legs, has a scaly body and a long tapering tail. Unlike most reptiles, lizards also typically have movable eyelids. Examples of lizards include the tuatara, chameleons, Komodo dragon, and Gila monster.
methane A hydrocarbon with the chemical formula CH4 (meaning there are four hydrogen atoms bound to one carbon atom). It’s a natural constituent of what’s known as natural gas. It’s also emitted by decomposing plant material in wetlands and is belched out by cows and other ruminant livestock. From a climate perspective, methane is 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide is in trapping heat in Earth’s atmosphere, making it a very important greenhouse gas.
molecule An electrically neutral group of atoms that represents the smallest possible amount of a chemical compound. Molecules can be made of single types of atoms or of different types. For example, the oxygen in the air is made of two oxygen atoms (O2), but water is made of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom (H2O).
natural gas A mix of gases that developed underground over millions of years (often in association with crude oil). Most natural gas starts out as 50 to 90 percent methane, along with small amounts of heavier hydrocarbons, such as propane and butane.
nectar A sugary fluid secreted by plants, especially by flowers. It encourages pollination by insects and other animals. It is collected by bees to make into honey.
pollinate To transport male reproductive cells — pollen — to female parts of a flower. This allows fertilization, the first step in plant reproduction.
pollinator Something that carries pollen, a plant’s male reproductive cells, to the female parts of a flower, allowing fertilization. Many pollinators are insects such as bees.
pollutant A substance that taints something — such as the air, water, our bodies or products. Some pollutants are chemicals, such as pesticides. Others may be radiation, including excess heat or light. Even weeds and other invasive species can be considered a type of biological pollution.
predator (adjective: predatory) A creature that preys on other animals for most or all of its food.
prey (n.) Animal species eaten by others. (v.) To attack and eat another species.
pterosaur Any of various extinct flying reptiles of the order Pterosauria. These animals lived 245 million years ago to 65 million years ago. Although not true dinosaurs, they lived during the reign of dinosaurs. Among members of this order were the pterodactyls of the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, which were characterized by wings consisting of a flap of skin supported by the very long fourth digit on each forelimb.
reptile Cold-blooded vertebrate animals, whose skin is covered with scales or horny plates. Snakes, turtles, lizards and alligators are all reptiles.
Science Talent Search An annual competition created and run by Society for Science & the Public. Begun in 1942, this event brings 40 research-oriented high school seniors to Washington, D.C. each year to showcase their research to the public and to compete for awards. Since spring 2016, this competition has been sponsored by Regeneron Pharmaceuticals.