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 NASACan we expect to get more than 10 years out of our cars today? At best, they get listed as a "late model" vehicle in some classified ads. So how about our space cars?
This week the Mars rover Opportunity is marking its tenth year of rolling around the Red Planet. Not too shabby for something that was designed for just a quick three-month life span. It's partner rover, Spirit, seized up and got permanently stuck in sand three years ago. And now both vehicles are being overshadowed by Curiosity, the high-tech rover that just landed on Mars five months ago.
Like any older vehicle, Opportunity has its quirks. It gets around mostly in reverse these days because one of the front wheels doesn't turn well. Its robot arm needs some extra coaxing from operators to get jobs done. But it's still collecting samples and data. It total, it's logged 22 miles across the Martian terrain. Not too shabby for a late model rover.
Here's a link to NASA's webpage of photos and information that Opportunity has collected over the years.
Courtesy NASAHave you ever wanted to change the world? Of course you have. Who hasn’t? Even JGordon, world renowned for being more or less satisfied with his immediate surroundings, keeps a list of Things I Will Change When I Am King.
Some sample items from the list:
31: No more cake pops. What a joke.
54: Round up the jerks, make them live on Jerk Island.
55: Make sure Jerk Island isn’t actually an awesome place to live.
70: Transform Lake Michigan into biggest ball pit. Cover dead fish with plastic balls.
115: More eyepatches.
262: Regulate burps.
I think you get the idea. As Tears for Fears almost said, everybody wants to change the world.
And we do change it. We change it in a huge way. Cumulatively, the tremendous force of the human race has drastically altered the face of the planet, from oceans to atmosphere. But a lot of that change is sort of accidental; we don’t mean to affect the acidity of the oceans or warm the atmosphere, but we like driving around, making things, using electricity, and all that, and the byproducts of these activities have global effects that we can’t always control.
The notion that we could control these effects is called geoengineering. So we’re accidentally causing global warming … what if we could engineer a global solution to actively cool the planet. We’re causing ocean acidification … what if we could chemically alter the oceans on purpose to balance it out? The trick would be to balance out the positive effects of geoengineering with the potential side effects … if we could even figure out what those side effects are.
Geoengineering is necessarily a really large-scale thing, so for the most part it’s been limited to theoretical projects. But it’s been pointed out that some geoengineering projects would be within the capabilities of not just international bodies or individual countries, but corporations or even wealthy individuals. The Science Museum of Minnesota even has an exhibit on just this possibility: What would you do if you had the wealth to literally change the world?
But there are rules against that sort of thing, and it’s potentially really, really dangerous. So no one would actually do it in the real world ever, right?
Apparently someone did do it. Back in July.
A guy named Russ George, in partnership with a First Nations village, is thought to have dumped about 100,000 kilograms of iron sulfate into the ocean off the Western Coast of Canada. Why iron sulfate? Because iron sulfate is an effective fertilizer for plankton, the microscopic plant-like things in the ocean. The idea is that if you could cause massive growth in plankton, the plankton would suck up a bunch of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere before dying and falling the ocean floor, taking the CO2 with it.
The first part of the plan seems to have worked: satellites have detected an artificial plankton bloom about 6,200 square miles large off the west coast of Canada (which is how the operation was discovered).
George was hoping to make money selling carbon credits gained from the CO2 captured by the plankton, and he convinced the First Nations group involved to put about a million dollars into the project, telling them that it was meant to help bolster the area’s salmon population.
The thing is, it’s really hard to say what dumping almost half a million pounds of iron sulfate into the ocean will do, besides capture some CO2. And, what’s more, it looks like it was illegal: conducted as it was, the operation violates the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity and the London convention on dumping wastes at sea. Whoops.
So does this spell the end for individually funded geoengineering projects? Or has George’s scheme just opened the door for similar operations?
And, more importantly, is this a good thing or a bad thing? Are people like George taking big steps toward addressing human-caused global change? Or are they creating what I like to call “Pandora’s Frankenstein*”?
Weigh in in the comments, and let us know what you think!
(*My friend Pandora has a pet chinchilla named Frankenstein, and he is horrible. I can’t wait until that chinchilla dies.)
Courtesy Bruce WeismanScientists at Rice University developed a new type of paint, infused with carbon nanotubes, that can detect strain in bridges, buildings, and airplanes before the signs of deformation become visible to the naked eye.
This is how it works: The paint is applied to the desired structure and allowed to dry. A laser beam is then focused on the structure, which excites the carbon nanotubes, and in turn, causes them to fluoresce in a way that indicates strain. Finally, a handheld infrared spectrometer is used to measure this fluorescence.
The advantage of strain paint over conventional strain gauges is that the gauge (the paint, in this case) and the read-out device don't have to be physically connected. Also, strain paint allows you to measure strain anywhere on the structure, and along any direction. This product is not yet on the market, but it will benefit all of us, as I'm sure we all find the structural integrity of our planes, bridges, and buildings to be pretty important.
Courtesy IonEThis is a couple weeks old, but I just noticed that the University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment (one of the Science Museum's partners on the Future Earth exhibit) has posted another "Big Question" video. These are short, fun videos that cover some of the challenges humans will be facing in the coming decades. This one is about plastics, and whether we can make them sustainable.
Anyway, here you are:
Carbon dioxide, you light up my life. Or you could, anyway, if this weirdo has his way. Said weirdo is biochemist Pierre Calleja, who has developed a light that can run on carbon dioxide rather than electricity. His secret: green algae that produce energy when they consume CO2.
Courtesy Jim Conrad
One large lamp he installed in a parking garage consumes up to one ton of CO2 per year. While that's just a drop in the air--the US alone emits almost 5.5 thousand metric tons per year--just think how much these lamps could consume if we replaced all the streetlamps, parking ramp lights, and other environmental lamps with them. It sounds like a pretty great idea when you consider that CO2 is a major driver of global-scale changes in our climate. Whoda thunk we could tackle our warming climate by turning on the lights?
Courtesy Science Museum of MinnesotaA few weeks ago I attended the Beaker & Brush Discussion in St. Paul, a public event about the intersection of science and art put on by the Science Museum of Minnesota the second Tuesday of each month. April’s topic was titled "Why We Collect", a discussion about why we as a society and as individuals like to collect things. Museum staff members were on hand to relate the museum's and their personal perspectives on the nuts and bolts of collecting. The subject particularly interested me because ever since I was a kid, I’ve collected stuff. Things like rocks and fossils, silent movie posters, space memorabilia, historic Duluth material, and early paleontology ephemera – I’ve collected them all. Lately it’s been dinosaur-related postcards. I got interested in collecting those because I designed some dinosaur postcards sold here at the museum gift shop, which, you know, I think is kind of cool. I like how it connects me to the long history of dinosaur postcards, which goes back quite a while. The two oldest cards in my collection date back before 1910. Both are related to industrialist Andrew Carnegie’s namesake dinosaur, Diplodocus carnegiei, which he had spared no expense extracting from the High Plains of Wyoming for his museum in Pittsburgh. Carnegie was so proud of his collection of bones that he had several mounted casts of the great sauropod created that he presented to heads of state in many countries around the world.
Courtesy Mark Ryan collectionThis brings me to a recent postcard I saw on eBay from the Field Museum of Natural History. The card showed a sepia-toned reproduction of one of paleo-artist Charles R. Knight’s murals. Knight was (and still is) a highly regarded natural history artist known for his exceptional talent at bringing long-extinct animals to life in his fantastic paintings. This one showed flying and swimming reptiles in the Cretaceous sea that once extended across the middle of the North American continent. Knight created the original painting (along with 28 others) between 1926 and 1930 for the Field Museum exhibits in Chicago, where they can still be seen today. A color reproduction of the same painting portrayed in the postcard also sets beneath the mosasaur skeleton seen at the Science Museum of Minnesota. Knight, by the way, was my grandmother’s maiden name. She was born in London, as was Charles Knight’s father, so I like to think that somewhere in the past, we might share a family connection.
Courtesy Mark Ryan CollectionBut beyond that, I like Knight’s images and have several in my collection, so even though this postcard wasn’t actually of dinosaurs per se (dinosaurs didn’t fly or live in water), I considered bidding on it. But what clinched it for me was the address on back of the postcard. The reverse side, which the seller included in his listing, displayed a 1932 postmark and was addressed to Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt at 640 Fifth Avenue in New York City, an address with which I happened to be familiar.
Let me explain the connection.
Courtesy Mark RyanA couple summers ago, we went to visit my son, who at the time was living in upstate New York. He and his girlfriend were living in Barryville, a small hamlet in the Catskills on the Delaware River about 100 miles northwest of New York City. They were renting a place for the summer with another couple on an old farm and quarry once owned by a man named Hickok. The site contained three residences, two for rental and another used by the property owners. It was a very quaint and idyllic setting, surrounded by woods, with the three buildings close together on the property and set before a steep wall of quarry rock where a small waterfall tumbled over one corner.
The rock in the quarry, I discovered, was primarily sandstone (or more precisely a feldspathic greywacke) of Devonian age, and the largest bedrock unit of the Catskill formation. Deposited in a delta environment during the Acadian orogeny (ancestral Appalachians Mountains) about 360 million years ago, it’s essentially the same rock that underlies the Pocono Mountains to the south in Pennsylvania. The rock unit was first quarried in Ulster County, New York and became known as bluestone because of its color at that location but the stone can come in several hues – in Barryville it’s red. Over the years, the rock has been heavily quarried as an architectural and building stone because of its durability, resistance to weathering, and how easily it splits into slabs. Today, the term “bluestone” is a commercial designation rather than geological and can include many kinds of rock used for building.
One evening the owners related to me how some of the rock quarried behind their house had been used to pave the sidewalks of New York City, and in fact back in the late 19th century, the house they lived in had been moved several yards toward the river so quarrymen could get at one very large, continuous slab of rock. Once removed, the single slab was shipped by barge over the Delaware & Hudson Canal and down to NYC for placement in front of the Vanderbilt Mansion on Fifth Avenue. The Vanderbilt name is practically synonymous with “filthy rich”, at least back then during the Gilded Age. I enjoy history and geology so the story intrigued me, and later that evening I went online to see what I could find out about the story.
Courtesy Public domainIt didn’t take long at all to come across this 1881 clipping in the New York Times archives that describes, in detail, getting the massive 25-foot rock from Barryville to NYC and placed in front of the William H. Vanderbilt mansion being built on Fifth Avenue between 51st and 52nd Streets in Manhattan. If by now you guessed that the address was 640 Fifth Avenue, you’d be right (actually William H. Vanderbilt built two identical mansions at the same time on the block, one for himself - the 640 address - and another at 642 Fifth Avenue that was divided into two residences for his two daughters and their families).
Courtesy Public domain via WikipediaWilliam Vanderbilt’s father, Cornelius “The Commodore” Vanderbilt, had amassed the family fortune via shipping and railroad interests in the mid-1800s, rocketing the ultra-wealthy Vanderbilts to the very stratospheric top layer of the socio-economic heap. To put their vast wealth in perspective compare the Commodore’s $100,000,000 (an inheritance that William Vanderbilt doubled) to the guys who led the mules that pulled the canal barge transporting William’s monster sidewalk slab. They’d have to walk 15-20 miles a day, tend to the mules, and pump out the barges – all for about $3 a month! Even the other wealthy families of the time (i.e. Astors and Carnegies) paled in comparison to the House of Vanderbilt. The extended Vanderbilt clan owned several properties along Fifth Avenue but William Vanderbilt’s Triple Palaces, as they were also known, would be the finest along Vanderbilt Row.
Courtesy Public domainFor nearly two years, six hundred laborers (including 60 sculptors and artisans from Europe) toiled on William H. Vanderbilt’s 640 residence, creating a brownstone behemoth which he filled with extreme opulence, including over 200 original pieces of art now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. According to a book about the mansion published privately by Vanderbilt, everything inside "sparkles and flashes with gold and color...with mother-of-pearl, with marble, with jewel effects in glass...and every surface is covered, one might say weighted, with ornament." The gigantic five-story oblong pile of stone and marble contained seventy rooms - “most of them huge” - and 33 bathrooms. Many of the dozens of servants lived on site, maids on the 5th floor and attic, manservants in the sub-basement. One employee’s only job was to keep the building’s furnaces stoked with coal.
Courtesy Public domainWhen he died in 1885, William H. Vanderbilt was the richest man in the world (at a time when the US had no income tax!). The mansion at 640 was willed to his brother, George Vanderbilt (who also built a giant 125,000 acre estate in Ashville, North Carolina, called Biltmore), and when George died in 1914, the huge house with the pavement stone from Barryville passed down to Cornelius Vanderbilt III and his wife, Grace Wilson Vanderbilt, the postcard’s addressee.
Courtesy Public domainGrace Wilson Vanderbilt was the darling of European royalty, and for many years New York’s leading socialite. Her marriage to Cornelius III caused him to be disinherited by his father (Cornelius II) and ostracized by many of the other Vanderbilts. (When his father died, rather than getting $60-$70 million, Cornelius III (nicknamed Neily), inherited only half a million dollars plus income from a million dollar trust fund. His brother Alfred threw another $7 million his way to somewhat even the score). Grace’s own father, Richard T. Wilson, was a New York banker of great wealth and close friends with Andrew Carnegie, but the Vanderbilts, for whatever reason, considered her a social climber. Despite the family animosity, Grace managed to make herself the Mrs. Vanderbilt, the family’s last grand dame of the social set. (An article in the November, 1905 Munsey’s Magazine stated Grace had attained her social status by learning “the art of success scientifically, from approved models” – meaning all the European royalty she met as a young girl). During her reign, Grace hosted huge dinner parties, usually twice a week, and even larger, lavish balls for a thousand guests (I guess this is when having 33 bathrooms comes in handy). She once claimed to have entertained 37,000 guests in a single year. Neily wasn’t as interested in his wife’s social activities. As a boy he longed to be a scientist, and graduated from Yale a mechanical engineer. He was also an expert sailor and career military man. When he wasn’t yachting or soldiering he’d spend his time creating various railroad improvement devices for which he owned several patents, or co-founding businesses like the Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT), New York’s very first subway system.
Courtesy Mark Ryan CollectionSo back to the postcard. The fact it had been addressed to the Vanderbilt mansion where the big sidewalk slab from the Barryville quarry ended up was enough to make it desirable to me, so I bid on it and won it. While waiting for its arrival in the mail, I looked more closely to the card’s inscription: a social regret and thank you for a box of candy to Grace signed simply “Eleanor”. This intrigued me, and investigating it further, I eventually came to the realization that the writer was Eleanor Roosevelt.
Courtesy LIbrary of Congress At the time her husband Franklin Delano Roosevelt (we share birthdays!) would have been governor of New York, and within 8 months become the president-elect of the United States. Now that was something. The card was cancelled with a St. Paul & Williston RPO postmark (railroad post office – my grandfather worked the Chicago-St. Paul leg). Eleanor could very well have been west visiting her nephew, Teddy Roosevelt, Jr. at the Field Museum. Like his father, TR - the former president - Teddy Jr. was a naturalist and explorer. Perhaps Eleanor was in Chicago to attend a memorial service for William V. Kelley who had fully financed her nephew’s 1929 Asian expeditions (Kelley-Roosevelts Expedition) for the natural history museum. Kelley had just died days before the postmark date.
Grace Vanderbilt was close friends with Alice Roosevelt, TR’s daughter, and Teddy, Jr’s half-sister, and obviously knew Eleanor, although, later, she and Neily would be vocal opponents of FDR and his New Deal recovery program, which they thought were socialistic. Sounds familiar, does it not? (Neily even called the president a traitor to his class). Of course the Great Depression had little effect on the Vanderbilts or their friends. The House of Vanderbilt’s range was widespread. Besides the Fifth Avenue mansions (and a boatload of private yachts), family members owned several summer homes in Newport, Rhode Island (e.g The Breakers, Marble House, and Grace and Neily’s Beaulieu. At Hyde Park, New York, a Vanderbilt mansion combines withFDR’s birthplace, and Eleanor Roosevelt’s getaway Val-Kill, to form the National Park Service’s Vanderbilt-Roosevelt National Historic sites. .
So, why do people collect things? According to this informative site, it can be for a number of reasons. Personally, I think I do it for several of the reasons listed: it connects me with memories of my youth or to some place I’ve visited, or just hooks me in with something that fascinates me. I know when I’m in the heat of my obsession - whatever that may be at the time, I find it difficult to part with any of my collection. Sometimes I’ll sell a lesser item to acquire something better, but that’s the exception rather than the rule. At some point my interest flags and I sell or give away most of the collection and move on to something else. But I find no matter what I collect, it often triggers an intense desire in me to find out as much as I can about it. Like this Vanderbilt postcard. Because of one silly postcard and a giant slab of sandstone, all these odd historical, geological, architectural, political, and socioeconomic connections have been brought together here. It makes for a good story anyway.
Courtesy Public domain via WikipediaI’ll end with one last anecdote. With all the interest this month with the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, there’s a Vanderbilt connection to it. In April of 1912, George Vanderbilt and his wife – the second owners of the 640 Fifth Avenue mansion - were in Europe and had booked passage on the maiden voyage of the Titanic. But George’s mother-in-law expressed a very strong premonition and convinced them to make other plans. Lots can go wrong on maiden voyages, she said. Lucky for them, they followed her advice and removed their luggage from the doomed liner and made the trip back on its sister ship RMS Olympic instead. George’s footman, Frederic Wheeler, however wasn’t as lucky. Wheeler remained on the Titanic and perished in the disaster.
Queen of the Golden Age by Cornelius Vanderbilt IV, McGraw-Hill, 1956
Beetlehead’s 640 Fifth Avenue (excellent blog)
Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt, Munsey’s Magazine, Nov. 1905
Vanderbilt home and info on Flickr
The future is now for some lucky Americans. The rest of us will have to wait and hope that someday soon our recycling trucks might also run on “trash gas.”
“Trash gas” is natural gas that is harvested from landfills where it is produced by the decomposition (breaking down) of organic waste. One future-thinking company, Waste Management Inc, now has over 1,000 trucks fueled by methane (a natural gas) that they collect from one of their very own California landfills.
Courtesy Tom Raftery
Natural gas can be used in vehicles in either a compressed or liquefied state. Waste Management’s trash gas trucks are about 50/50 compressed natural gas (CNG) and liquefied natural gas (LNG). You should check out those links, but to give you the gist of the idea here, imagine a balloon filled with natural gas. CGN is like squeezing that balloon. LGN is like cooling that balloon until the molecules inside condense into liquid like steam on a bathroom wall.
Why is this a BIG idea? CNG and LNG emit less carbon and nitrogen oxides into the atmosphere than diesel (the conventional fuel used by most large trucks). As you’ve probably heard, carbon dioxide is among the greenhouse gases contributing to global climate change. Meanwhile, nitrogen oxides contribute to smog, which is bad for your health besides being unsightly. Less is definitely more when it comes to carbon and nitrogen oxides.
As for more, Waste Management’s single currently operating LGN-generating landfill creates 13,000 gallons of LGN each day, which is enough to fuel 1,000 trucks. According to the primary source of this blog post, Waste Management has another landfill-turned-fuel station up for approval. With an additional 299 landfills and about 21,000 trucks, it might not be that long before a Waste Management “trash gas” truck comes rolling along your street.
Courtesy NswansonWait, JGordon!! Before we go any further, I have something to ask you.
How is ice our ancient friend?
Because it soothes our hot tempers, and it makes strong drinks more palatable.
And hotness? Why is it our enemy?
Because it makes us uncomfortable when we have it, and it makes us feel unattractive when we don’t.
I see. But don’t you think that was a long title for a blog post?
Maybe. Don’t you think that anyone whose time is at all valuable will have stopped reading by now because of this needless discussion?
OMG! What were we even talking about? I’m a little out of sorts because I was up all night killing the rats in my apartment. You think that’s weird? How about this: this morning, there were no dead rats to be found! It could be that they were only playing dead, or it could be that, like Obi-wan Kenobi, striking them down only caused them to become more powerful than I could possibly imagine, and also to vanish.
Or it could be that too much heat and not enough cooling ice in the apartment caused me to hallucinate the whole episode. However could that be remedied?
Well, the country of Mongolia has an idea. Or, more specifically, it’s capital city, Ulan Bator, and a local engineering firm have an idea: create mini-glaciers to place around the city. The idea behind the mini glaciers isn’t so much to prevent rat hallucinations (although that’s definitely a bonus) as it is to combat the effects of global warming and the city’s urban heat island (cities, with all their paved surfaces and heat-absorbing materials, tend to heat up more than the surrounding countryside). This could reduce the need for energy-hungry air conditioning in the city. The melting ice could potentially also be used to supplement the area’s drinking water and irrigation needs.
But how are the sons and daughters of the Great Khan going to pull this off? You can’t just hallucinate a gigantic block of ice into being. I should know.
The plan is to make a sort of mini-glacier naturally in the winter, using river ice. Typically, ice on a body of water won’t form more than a few feet thick, because at that point the ice itself insulates the water below from the cold above. But in situations where the water can be forced up through cracks or holes in the ice, it will form more ice on top, adding layers until the ice is many meters thick. These giant sheets of ice, called “naleds” or “aufeis” can last well into the following summer, as they slowly melt away.
The Mongolian engineers are planning on helping naled formation along by regularly drilling holes in river ice, so water can flow more freely up to be frozen. The block or blocks of ice produced will then be transported to the city, where they will … be cool, I guess.
The project will begin this winter, and if it’s successful, it could be a model for small-scale geoengineering (if that’s not an oxymoron) in northern cities as global climate warms. While glaciers and permafrost area will likely shrink, annual naled formation will continue. The project engineers think that naleds could also be used to actually repair areas of damaged (thawing) permafrost.
The articles on the project don’t get very specific on the size or placement of the naleds, but I suppose it’s also possible that, if they cover enough area, they would increase the city’s albedo—objects with high albedo reflect more light and absorb less of it, which means that they will heat up less in sunlight.
I’m afraid that my hot apartment hallucinations will force this project out of my memory by tomorrow, but it would have been interesting to see what sort of results come from it, and whether other countries pick the idea up as a cost effective method for dealing with rising summer temperatures. But I’ll leave that up to you, Buzzketeers. And to you, JGordon, my hot friend.
You are Cordially Invited
Publication Party, Public Reading, and Book Signing Event
FOOL ME TWICE: Fighting the Assault on Science in America
SHAWN LAWRENCE OTTO
Introduction by Don Shelby
Emcee Jim Lenfestey
"A gripping analysis of America's anti-science crisis."
—Starred Kirkus Review
“In this incredible book, Otto explores the devaluation of science in America.”
—Starred Publishers Weekly Review
Courtesy Shawn Lawerence Otto
Tuesday October 18, 2011 at 7PM
Target Performance Hall, Open Book
1011 Washington Avenue South, Minneapolis
(click here for directions and free parking)
This event is free and open to the public
the Loft Literary Center
the Science Museum of Minnesota
Beer, wine and light refreshments served
Books for sale at the event
Free book by drawing. To qualify: A) post about the event on Facebook B) tweet at the event with hashtag #FoolMeTwice and mention @ShawnOtto