Courtesy Luis Miguel Bugallo SánchezThey're the favorite punching bags and punchlines for politicians and late night comics: those seemingly odd science research projects. Right now there's a turmoil over a National Science Foundation grant of some $385,000 to study the genitalia of ducks.
The Washington Post today digs deeper into these kinds of projects. Are they frivolous? Do they lead to deeper scientific findings? If the government doesn't provide the funding, would anybody else? Does the government have a obligation to help provide opportunities for such research to happen? Who and how do we decide if a study is worth funding for the greater good of society? They're all interesting questions.
One of the problems of the past, the article notes, is that scientists typically have kept quiet and take their lumps from the critics while their research goes on. The thinking is that the critics don't want to understand science, so why even engage them in an argument. And unknown benefits can emerge from such projects. A researcher looking into why bluebirds are blue is now on the cusp of developing a new way to make paint.
It's a great topic for debate. Read the article and share your thoughts here with other Science Buzz readers.
Courtesy NASA (via Zonu.com)Back in 1969, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were making their historic moonwalk, I remember thinking to myself, what would happen if some kind of malfunction on the Lunar Module prevented them from blasting off the Moon's surface back to the Command and Service Module? They would most certainly die, there's no doubt about that, because NASA had no rescue plan in place. But what about Michael Collins, the Command Module pilot who was orbiting the Moon in the mother ship? He was waiting to take his fellow crew members home to Earth. If they didn't show up, he'd be in for a pretty lonely and agonizing three-day trip across the quarter-million miles of empty space back to Earth. I wondered what that would have been like.
Fortunately, Apollo 11 was a tremendous success and all three astronauts made it back safely, as did the 18 Apollo astronauts who followed in their footsteps (including the ill-fated Apollo 13 astronauts), so the tragic scenario never played out.
Courtesy NASABut what would that have been like? Astronaut Al Worden probably came closest to experiencing the profound loneliness of isolation in ourter space, when he was piloting the Command Module for the Apollo 15 mission. While his crew mates were busy walking (and driving!) on the Moon's surface, Worden was circling overhead - all by himself - for 3 days. At times, when his craft disappeared behind the far side of the Moon, he had no communications with anyone - not even Mission Control - and was thousands of miles away from his colleagues, and hundreds of thousands of miles away from any other human beings. He holds the record for being the "most isolated human being" ever.
You might think it must have been an anxious time for the solo astronaut, but his story, which can be found here, might just surprise you.
Courtesy The Theater of Public PolicyPreliminary information from a study of river water DNA samples done two years ago cranked up concerns about the presence of Asian carp in Minnesota sections of the Mississippi River and also the St. Croix River. But new and deeper analysis of the data shows that the menacing fish haven't been regular residents of those waters, and that local authorities have plenty of time to plan ways of keeping the invasive species away.
What changed? Last year researchers used more precise methods of identifying the DNA, they found that the earlier DNA samples were most likely not from Asian carp.
It's all good news in the short term. The Asian carp have been slowly migrating up the Mississippi River, upsetting the eco-balance of those waters for many years. The fish are aggressive and actually can "jump" out of the water and into anglers' boats. They also are aggressively eating foods that are the diets of native fish.
This new information isn't slowing down plans to try to halt the spread of the fish upstream, authorities added. Among the plans are to install underwater noise and bubble barriers at the Ford Dam on the Mississippi River in the heart of the Twin Cities.
Courtesy CC/Flickr/dni777We've posted about this grouwin problem numerous times before, but the trend continues downward for honeybee populations. This recap of the problem looks at the situation from Minnesota and national angles. It also addresses the complex causes of this serious situation. Here's an older post on the bee problem.
Courtesy Terence OngIn one of the biggest breakthroughs in food and dietary history, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has announced today (April 1, 2013), that it is permitting the sale of genetically modified ice cream to the public. The announcement comes on the heals of 16 years of experimenting and testing to come with a healthier version of the dairy food.
"Through the genetic modification (GM) process, we've been able to remove up to 93 percent of the calories you find in traditional ice creams, explained FDA spokesman Herman Guernsey. "And with that breakthrough, we've eliminated 100 percent of the guilt associated with eating ice cream. Now, people will be able to enjoy healthier and happier ice cream."
Of course, such breakthroughs also require some significant changes to the ice cream. The GM process did not work for traditional ice cream flavors like vanilla, chocolate or strawberry. "We did have to turn to some more health-oriented flavorings, but our focus groups seemed to especially like the GM ice cream flavors of broccoli, spinach and tuna," said Guernsey.
Cost is another issue for consumers. In order to push the GM ice cream through this advanced process, the cost right now is about $10 a pint. While public sales start today, GM ice cream may not be available in all grocery stores. But internet orders are being accepted at the website www.gmicecream.com. "We strongly advise anyone making internet orders do do so in the winter time as the ice cream is shipped by U.S. mail," Guernsey added.
He concluded: "We think people will enjoy this new GM ice cream and have a good laugh while reading this blog post."
Here's some pretty intense video of a red-tailed hawk trying to get a little eggy meal at a bald eagle nest in New Jersey. Let's just say it doesn't go well for the hawk.
A few days of sunshine have really started to melt our snow here in the Twin Cities. But looking at the Mississippi River, you can hardly tell. In fact, the river levels at the official St. Paul monitoring location dipped down the past few days before turning back up. The next flood forecast is due out tomorrow. About a month ago, forecasters estimated at 95 percent chance of the river topping flood stage. Click here to see a graph of the past week's water levels in St. Paul.
During the late 1860s and early 1870s, and despite losing his right arm during the Civil War, Powell led several extensive expeditions into the rugged, unexplored regions of the American West collecting geological, geographical, and ethnological data, along with natural history specimens for the United States government. A fervent scientist, Powell served as director of both the U.S. Geological Society and the Bureau of Ethnology, and helped found the National Geographic Society.
Powell is probably best remembered for his study and befriending of the Ute people, and for making the first explorations of the Colorado River (then called the Grand River) and the Grand Canyon. Lake Powell, a large reservoir located on the border of northern Arizona and southern Utah is named in his honor.
Courtesy NOAANitrogen is an essential nutrient for plants. So how can nitrogen limit plant growth, given that nitrogen comprises 79 percent of the atmosphere? But atmospheric nitrogen is composed of molecules consisting of two atoms of nitrogen and this form of nitrogen cannot be used by plants.
Farmers have for centuries spread animal manure on fields or plowed under leguminous crops (such as alfalfa which has microbial communities living on its roots that fix nitrogen) to add useful, reactive forms of nitrogen to soils. German ingenuity in the early 20th century invented an industrial process that made it possible for the first time to manufacture plant-usable forms of nitrogen, which made possible the artificial fertilizing of crops.
Manmade production of ammonia and nitrate fertilizers has exploded in recent decades and now vastly exceeds the amount of atmospheric nitrogen converted into reactive nitrogen by microbial organisms around the world. At the same time, the burning of ever-increasing quantities of coal, oil and natural gas converts some atmospheric nitrogen into oxides of nitrogen (NOx). NOx emissions can both increase crop growth and diminish it because NOx gases help catalyze the formation of ground-level ozone and this gas is toxic to plant life.
The huge increases of human-produced forms of nitrogen that are applied to croplands and that are released into the atmosphere and eventually settle out have many unintended consequences. In particular, excess nitrogen washes off of agricultural and urban landscapes and is accelerating the destructive growth of algae in lakes, rivers and coastal estuaries around the world.
The connections between manmade carbon dioxide emissions and climate change are quite worrying and receive much scientific and media attention. Nitrogen pollution receives much less notice but is a dramatic example of how human activities now dominate many of the chemical, physical and biological processes that make this plant so amenable to human life.
Hold it there just a second, the reports earlier today that Voyager I has left the solar system may be a bit premature. NASA's team following the spacecraft say that they don't consider it to be outside of the influence of our Sun just yet. Confusing? You can read more about the official NASA position on this matter right here.