Stories tagged science

Nov
20
2007

A humpback whale throws itself from the water: in its enthusiasm to give its life for science.
A humpback whale throws itself from the water: in its enthusiasm to give its life for science.Courtesy National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
I mean, I think I’d have guessed that the best way to gather scientific data on whales would be to observe them, and maybe toss some electronic tracking tags on them. But then again, I’m no scientist, so I’ll leave cetacean biology up to folks like those on the Japanese “scientific research whaling” fleet, which disembarked on Sunday with the intention of catching 1100 whales to study the whales’ “population, age composition, sex ratio, and natural mortality rate.” Then, in accordance with the regulations of the International Whaling Commision, these 1100 research subjects will be butchered and sold as food.

It seems a little goofy, I know, killing all these whales in the name of science, but you know what they say: “You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few thousand whales.”

This hunt (we’ll call it a hunt, for simplicity’s sake) is just another episode in a decades long debate over whaling rights and practices. In 1986, the International Whaling Commission declared a moratorium on all whaling, in response to severely depleted whale populations. This cessation of whale hunting had just a couple exceptions: aboriginal subsistence whaling, which allows small scale whaling by aboriginal groups with a tradition of whaling, and the scientific research whaling, which says that whales can be taken for scientific purposes. The harvested whales can then be sold for consumption.

Japan has a cultural tradition of whaling, dating back a thousand years at least. Whaling became particularly important, however, after WWII, when whales became “a cheap source of protein in the Japanese post-war diet.” Whale consumption peaked in 1962, and has since declined in popularity, to the point where it is now a subsidized industry. The for-profit company behind the research expeditions sells about 60 million dollars worth of whale products each year.

The Japanese government maintains their country’s whaling is done for scientific purposes alone, although critics point out that the scientific whaling uses the exact same boats, crews, and equipment as was used for commercial whaling prior to the moratorium.

This year, the Japanese fleet plans on catching 1000 minke whales, a relatively plentiful species of small baleen whale, as well as 50 humpback whales and 50 fin whales, which are vulnerable and endangered species, respectively. Geenpeace plans on intercepting the fleet with their flagship Esperanza, and then, I don’t know, yelling a lot. It promises to be an exciting expedition, especially for the whales.

Oct
13
2007

Science Town, USA: Also the place where the zipper was invented.
Science Town, USA: Also the place where the zipper was invented.

A panel of scientists has produced a list of the ten most significant scientific achievements developed in the Chicago area:

  1. The first controlled nuclear reaction
  2. Invention of the cell phone
  3. Hormone treatment for prostate and breast cancer
  4. Invention of magnetic recording
  5. Developing treatment for malaria
  6. The first skyscraper
  7. Discovery of the top quark
  8. Discovering chromosome abnormalities in cancer
  9. Inventing carbon-14 dating
  10. Discovering how the human body makes insulin

(Not sure if I consider #2 a noteworthy achievement, but there it is...)

Chicago also has an annual program called Science in the City. Wouldn't it be cool to do this for the Twin Cities, too?

Sep
13
2007

Whither global warming?: As scientists debate the findings, what are we supposed to do? Image from NOAA.
Whither global warming?: As scientists debate the findings, what are we supposed to do? Image from NOAA.

Discussions of global warming almost always include some allusion to “scientific consensus” – the idea that many / most / almost all scientists agree that the warming is real, is caused by humans, and/or will have catastrophic effects on the planet.

There have always been two problems with this:

  1. “Consensus,” while a wonderful thing in politics, is meaningless is science. It doesn’t matter how many people agree with a statement; all that matters is whether or not the statement can be verified by independent observation or experimentation.
  2. The “consensus” is not as universal as has sometimes been presented. Scientific studies that proclaim “we’re all doomed!” naturally get a lot more attention than those that say “everything is normal.” Unfortunately, this imbalance of attention has led some people to conclude that the scientific argument is one-sided, when this is far from the case.

Yesterday The Hudson Institute issued a press release counting 500 peer-reviewed scientific papers disputing some aspect of the global warming hypothesis. According to the report,

More than 300 of the scientists found evidence that 1) a natural moderate 1,500-year climate cycle has produced more than a dozen global warmings similar to ours since the last Ice Age and/or that 2) our Modern Warming is linked strongly to variations in the sun's irradiance. … Other researchers found evidence that 3) sea levels are failing to rise importantly; 4) that our storms and droughts are becoming fewer and milder with this warming as they did during previous global warmings; 5) that human deaths will be reduced with warming because cold kills twice as many people as heat; and 6) that corals, trees, birds, mammals, and butterflies are adapting well to the routine reality of changing climate.

What is The Hudson Institute?

Let’s not mince words: The Hudson Institute is not a scientific organization. It is a political think-tank; it supports conservative policies; and it receives funding from some major corporations. It is easy to imagine they simply reviewed thousands of published reports and simply picked the ones that happened to fit their world-view.

(Of course, Al Gore is not a scientist either; he has a liberal political agenda; and he gets money from political contributions. What’s more, the Clinton-Gore administration funded many of the reports he now uses to support his global warming hypotheses.)

None of that matters, though. The Hudson Institute isn’t claiming to have done any original scientific research. They are simply pointing to research that has already been done by other scientists which dispute some aspects of global warming, and thus undermine claims to “consensus.”

So, where do we go from here?

Danish scientist Bjorn Lomborg has a new book out called Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warming He has recently been interviewed by both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Lomborg believes that global warming is indeed caused by human activity. But he argues that the dangers have been over-hyped, and that “Anti-warming policies (like those of the Kyoto Protocol) that require energy taxes or other checks on economic dynamism are inefficient and even harmful.” For example:

Mr. Lomborg cites studies showing that by implementing Kyoto--at a cost of trillions of dollars--we might be able to achieve a 3% reduction in fluvial and coastal flooding damages. If we instead adopted smart flood policies--e.g., an end to public subsidies that encourage people to settle in flood plains, a shrewder use of levees--we could achieve a 91% reduction in damages at a fraction of the Kyoto cost.

So, if global warming demands a response, it must be a clear-headed one – both scientifically (using all the information at our disposal, and not creating an artificial “consensus”) and socially (making rational decisions based on costs and benefits). As the Journal article notes, “[r]ather than governments imposing costly energy taxes to little benefit, Mr. Lomborg argues, they should fund research programs aimed at finding breakthrough technologies.”

* Tip of the hat to Douglas Adams

Aug
28
2007

The title of this YouTube video may be a little demeaning toward the French in general, but when I watched this, I couldn't believe it. It really shows a disturbing lack of regard for science and science education in the world. Are we destined for another Dark Ages?

I like science, but I'm not a fan of "The Simpsons." But this story shares how a researcher has found scientific principles being shared and explained in episodes of the popular cartoon show.

Believe it or not, US regulators are very concerned that everybody get a chance to participate in science research. Often, when applying for a grant, scientists have to give information about what populations will be included.

The government should then like the recent explosion of Web-based experiments. Experiments on the Internet are available to anyone with an Internet connection, which is already the considerable majority of Americans of a wide range of ethnicities.

I recently started a new web-based research lab, the Cognition and Language Laboratory. The experiments typically run about 5 minutes. Right now there are experiments on mother-child speech, language processing, visual cognition and birth order effects on personality. I really appreciate your participation.

Aug
10
2007

Former Astronaut Sally Ride: Photo courtesy NASA (Columbia Accident Investigation Board photo by Rick Stiles 2003).
Former Astronaut Sally Ride: Photo courtesy NASA (Columbia Accident Investigation Board photo by Rick Stiles 2003).
I listened to astronaut Sally Ride on the radio this morning talking about the importance of science, and science in education, particularly for girls. You can find information about it on her website Sally Ride Science.

The site has links to science festivals, books, science camps and toys for young people, along with information for educators. It also includes a blog with teacher Barbara Morgan, the 1st Educator Astronaut, who launched into space on the space shuttle Endeavour just two days ago on August 8.

Links

Sally Ride Biography
Barbara Morgan info
Space Shuttle Endeavour

Science Hack is a search engine that lets you look for pre-screened educational science videos.

Threadless T's joined up with Seed Magazine to sponsor a "Science and Culture" T-shirt design contest. The bummer is that the contest ends today. But the good news is you can check out all the designs folks submitted, rate them, and maybe buy a few.

A popular science blogger from U of MN, Morris, PZ Myers, has started a discussion to answer: "What is science?"