Stories tagged computer modeling

It's Friday, and y'all know what that means. Yup, time for a new Science Friday video.

Science Friday
Science FridayCourtesy Science Friday

This week,

"Many mammals have whiskers but not all whisk. Cats don't. Rats do. To whisk, rats use special muscles in their face to brush their whiskers against an object. From the bending bristles, rats seem to be able to decode an object's shape and texture and Mitra Hartmann, engineer at Northwestern University, wants to understand how. This week, Hartmann and colleagues published a 3D whisker model, which she says will help quantify what information the brain receives from a whisk."

It's Friday, so here's today's Science Friday video. Science Friday
Science FridayCourtesy Science Friday
"Fleas are admirable jumpers -- a talent that humans have recognized for thousands of years, according to engineer Greg Sutton. Yet, until this week, exactly how fleas propel themselves wasn't understood. Sutton and Malcolm Burrows, of the University of Cambridge, filmed fleas jumping, analyzed flea anatomy, made mathematical models and cracked the flea leap mystery. It's not in the knees."

Our very own JGordon drops some knowledge...

This cool project,, allows you to help with climate research. The site links to a program called Boinc, which allows scientists to use your spare computing power for their research projects. While the project is running, you can watch visualizations of the research as it takes place. In fact, you can help with all kinds of projects--as many as you want.

If you decide to try it, please join our team. We'll see if SMM fans can become one of the top contributors!


The King of All Clouds: ... here to rule the skies
The King of All Clouds: ... here to rule the skiesCourtesy akakumo
Did you know that mathematical equations can calculate the temperature, wind speed, and humidity of clouds? Well, the Center for Multiscale Modeling of Atmospheric Processes (CMMAP, pronounced “see-map”) is using these equations and developing a revolutionary approach to climate modeling that will help us understand the roles of clouds today and in the future.

So what is climate modeling exactly? Good question. Think of a giant grid that covers the globe, with cells the size of Delaware. Within each grid, the mathematical equations that I mentioned above are used to predict weather forecasts and climate simulations. But there’s a problem with this grid system: the clouds are much smaller than the cells used in the global models, thus creating a large source of uncertainty in today’s climate models.

CMMAP has come up with a solution to this problem called multi-scale modeling framework (MMF). Their radical new approach will simulate realistic cloud processes in a tiny-fraction of each Delaware-sized cell, greatly improving the climate model. In order to represent each small-scale process, scientists have invented equations that define the temperature and moisture content in a cloud based on the atmospheric conditions in the entire grid cell. Though this is quite an advancement from the technologies of the past, there is still work to be done to accurately represent clouds in the climate model. As developments in MMF continue, CMMAP could potentially hold the key that is necessary in unlocking the mystery to understanding the weather and climate.

If you’d like to learn more about the formation of clouds or more research that CMMAP is conducting, check out the links!


So this is how it gets snotty: I thought it would be more subtle.
So this is how it gets snotty: I thought it would be more subtle.Courtesy The Rapscallion
Buzzketeers—quick, for your own safety, de-cash yourself now! Come on!

There’s a flu pandemic brewing, and y’all are just sitting there, lining your pockets with little green rags that carry as much disease as monetary value. So, please, for health’s sake, empty your wallets of cash, stuff those plague bills into manila envelopes, and send them to JGordon, The Science Museum of Minnesota, The Western Hemisphere (I don’t remember the exact address here, but I’m sure the postal service can figure out the details). I’m willing to sacrifice my health—for you—and disinfect your cash money. None of that money will be returned (please, I’m not made of postage), but I’m sure that the knowledge that you have done your part to slow the pandemic is compensation enough.

(This message goes doubly for the younger, or “lil,” Buzzketeers out there. I understand that you have less money, but your immature immune systems are particularly vulnerable to viral infection. Trust me on this one, and send those piggybanks my way.)

Do you not believe me? I think I’ve proven my scientific reliability time and time again… but here, a real link to a real story: cash is a pretty good way to transmit the influenza virus.

See, according to researchers at the Central Laboratory of Virology in Switzerland, a lonely lil’ flu virus on a fresh and clean piece of paper money can only live for about an hour. Unfortunately, viruses are rarely lonely, and our cash money is not very clean. So the researchers observed how long a virus could live on cash when it was mixed with a little nasal mucus (we’ll call it “snot”).

Under a cozy little film of mucus, the flu viruses were much hardier. Some strains of influenza lived as long as 17 days on the bill. And while the scientists didn’t test the exact strain of swine flu that we’re dealing with now, they did see how long other varieties of the H1N1 virus would last. H1N1 influenza remained viable (it could still infect someone) on the cash for up to 10 days.

It turns out that about 94 percent of dollar bills may carry pathogens (germs, viruses, etc). So let me shoulder this burden of worry, and let’s see that cash.

On to part 2 of this post…

Researchers at Northwestern University and Indiana University are also using money to study the spread of disease, but in a totally different way. It’s a little more complicated, and a little cooler.

Even if cash is totally clean, and doesn’t act as a vector for passing the flu, a cash transaction represents a face-to-face exchange between multiple people, the sort of encounter that could result in the flu virus being passed on.

And, hey, look: a project designed to follow the journey of individual dollar bills across the country.

The Northwestern and Indiana scientists took data from this bill-tracing project (called Where’s George?, and combined it with information on air traffic and commuter traffic patterns for the country to make a mathematical model of how people move and interact in the US. They then added information about the H1N1 swine flu into the system—the locations of confirmed cases, rates of infection, the time it takes to become contagious… that sort of thing. With all the variables taken into consideration, the model becomes incredibly complex—so complex that it takes a supercomputer about ten hours to make all the calculations, and come up with a forecast of where future infections will be, and how many of them we might expect.

But the model seems to work. Both universities, working independently, came up with strikingly similar models, and when predictions from the models were compared to real-life figures they matched up pretty well.

So far the models’ estimates have been slightly lower than actual infections, but they predict that there will be about 2,000 cases of the swine flu in the United States by the end of May, with most of those occurring in New York, Miami, Los Angeles and Houston. The researchers didn’t run any predictions beyond about a month, however. The flu, they say, as well as public response to it, are so unpredictable that using the models to look too far ahead doesn’t work. (The flu could mutate into something more virulent, or the government could do something drastic to control its spread, or, you know, we could get invaded by space aliens.)

(Liza, by the way, talked about these models a little last week.)

How about that? Money follows us around, viruses follow us around, viruses follow money around, and we trade all of it.

Here’s the link to Northwestern’s flu model

Here’s the link to Indiana’s model.

If your answer is "Nothing, yet," then you might consider stopping by the museum.

Minnesota's Water Resources: Impacts of Climate Change
Dr. Lucinda Johnson, National Resources Research Institute, University of Minnesota-Duluth
Thursday, April 9, 2009
7 - 8:30 pm in the Auditorium

Over the past 150 years, Minnesota's climate has become increasingly warmer, wetter, and variable, resulting in undeniable ecological impacts. For example, more recent changes in precipitation patterns combined with urban expansion and wetland losses have resulted in an increase in the frequency and intensity of flooding in parts of Minnesota. Learn about exciting new research which will develop a prediction model for future climate changes specific to Minnesota, and discover its potential economic and civic impact.

Check it out.


Water vapor in action: Hoh Lake, Washington.
Water vapor in action: Hoh Lake, Washington.Courtesy S. McAfee

I hate it when bad news gets confirmed.

That’s just what happened when Andrew Dessler and his colleagues at Texas A&M were able to show that a warmer atmosphere holds more water vapor. Unfortunately, water is a greenhouse gas, so more water vapor means the earth warms, so the atmosphere can hold more water, which is a greenhouse gas . . . I think you can see where this is going. It’s a nasty feedback circle. If the earth stays more or less the same temperature, we don’t worry about this too much because there’s a really good way to get water out of the atmosphere. In fact, it just shut down air and highway travel all over the East Coast.

It may seem like a no-brainer that warmer air holds more water, but these scientists were able to put solid numbers on the link between temperature and water vapor, which is a big deal. They used information from a satellite called the Atmospheric Infrared Sounder to measure the amount of water in the air.

Using information from 2003 to 2008, they found that for every 1 degree Celsius the earth warms, the extra water in the air traps 2 watts for every square meter of the earth. If you stored that up over a square meter for an hour, you could run a 100-watt light bulb for about a minute. Bet you wouldn’t even notice that in your electric bill. But the earth is big, so let’s put it in perspective and do the math.

The surface of the earth is 510,072,000 square kilometers. According to howstuffworks, your run-of-the-mill power plant puts out 3.5 billion kilowatts in a year. That means the extra warming that water vapor adds for every degree the earth gets warmer is about the same as the annual output of 290 power plants, give or take. That’s a lot of light bulbs.