Stories tagged Scientific Enterprise


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.
I'd Rather be a Recycling Truck: A lucky 1000 Waste Management recycling trucks run on cleaner-burning natural gas (compared to conventional diesel).  Are more in the making?
I'd Rather be a Recycling Truck: A lucky 1000 Waste Management recycling trucks run on cleaner-burning natural gas (compared to conventional diesel). Are more in the making?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.


Sweet Mongolian ice: What can't it do?
Sweet Mongolian ice: What can't it do?Courtesy Nswanson
Wait, JGordon!! Before we go any further, I have something to ask you.

Yes, JGordon?

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

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

You know you want to read it. Click here for more info
You know you want to read it. Click here for more infoCourtesy 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

sponsored by
the Loft Literary Center
the Science Museum of Minnesota

no reservation required, but click here to RSVP to help us plan

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


Have you ever wanted to get involved in scientific research, but figured you weren't qualified? It turns out that scientists need help from people like you all over the world. Citizen science has been a popular pastime for nerdy types for quite a while, and now, online projects are connecting citizen scientists using social media.

Spiral Galaxy: Citizen scientists sort through images like this one from the Hubble Space Telescope at Galaxy Zoo.
Spiral Galaxy: Citizen scientists sort through images like this one from the Hubble Space Telescope at Galaxy Zoo.Courtesy NASA

What is citizen science, you ask? It takes many forms, but the ultimate goal is for normal folks like you and me to lend our time and abilities to scientists--to collect data, tag birds, photograph species--the list goes on. Amateurs help scientists by extending their observational reach--a network of 40 citizens all over the country can make more observations than 2-3 scientists in one location. They also help scientists by performing simple tasks that can be time-consuming but don't ultimately require specialized training.

Whether you're interested in plants, animals, climate, weather, pollution, or astronomy, there are plenty of ways to get involved--Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Citizen Science Central is a clearinghouse of citizen science projects. Some examples include:

You can even use your computer to model climate change. In these projects, it's important to follow directions from the scientists, to make sure your data and other contributions are usable. But no matter how you get involved, it's a great way to help develop a better understanding of the world around us, which helps pave the way for a better future.


Camp Carnegie in Wyoming in 1899: Arthur Coggeshall, sitting far right and donning suspenders, poses for a photograph taken near the Carnegie museum's Sheep Creek quarry in Wyoming. Crews from the American Museum of Natural History and the Carnegie Museum met on the High Plains during the quarrying of Diplodocus carnegii. Standing, left to right: W. D. Mathew, R. S. Lull, H. F. Osborn, W. J. Holland, (unknown on wagon - possibly Willie Reed), Jacob Wortman (with pipe), W. H. Reed. Sitting left to right: Walter Granger, George Mellor, Ira Schallenberger, and  Coggeshall.
Camp Carnegie in Wyoming in 1899: Arthur Coggeshall, sitting far right and donning suspenders, poses for a photograph taken near the Carnegie museum's Sheep Creek quarry in Wyoming. Crews from the American Museum of Natural History and the Carnegie Museum met on the High Plains during the quarrying of Diplodocus carnegii. Standing, left to right: W. D. Mathew, R. S. Lull, H. F. Osborn, W. J. Holland, (unknown on wagon - possibly Willie Reed), Jacob Wortman (with pipe), W. H. Reed. Sitting left to right: Walter Granger, George Mellor, Ira Schallenberger, and Coggeshall.Courtesy Mark Ryan
Back in the summer of 1899, on the Fourth of July, the first bones of a long-dead dinosaur were discovered in the wilds of Wyoming that would soon fire the imagination of the world and popularize dinosaurs in a way that wouldn’t be equaled again until the release of Jurassic Park nearly a century later. The dinosaur would soon bear the name Diplodocus carnegii in honor of Andrew Carnegie, who financed its discovery through his Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Carnegie’s dinosaur would eventually be nicknamed Dippy, but Arthur S. Coggeshall, a major player in its discovery suggested a better name: the Star-Spangled Dinosaur. Coggeshall had a good point. Not just because the celebrated sauropod had been found on Independence Day, but in the ensuing years, Dippy would become one of the greatest ambassadors not only for the growing science of vertebrate paleontology but for the United States itself.

The story of Dippy actually began seven months before in November of 1898 when a full-page error-ridden article appeared in a New York newspaper proclaiming “The Most Colossal Animal Ever on Earth“ had just been dug up in Wyoming. The headline caught the eye of steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie and he suddenly decided he wanted the dinosaur (named in the article as Brontosaurus giganteus) for his recently opened Pittsburgh Museum. So in the margin of the paper, Carnegie scribbled a note to William Holland, curator of the museum that read: “can you buy this for Pittsburgh?”

Holland immediately contacted the man mentioned in the article and offered to buy the dinosaur skeleton flat out. The discoverer, Bill Reed of the University of Wyoming, explained that the news story was grossly distorted and riddled with inaccuracies. There was no skeleton, no Brontosaurus giganteus, only a fragment of the end of a very large thighbone he had found in the nearby Freezeout Hills. But Reed, who probably knew the fossil fields of Wyoming better than any man in the state, offered his services to locate and dig up the rest of the skeleton in the next spring after the snow melted.

By the time spring arrived, Reed had resigned his position at the University of Wyoming and was under a one-year contract with the Carnegie museum. This is where Arthur Coggeshall comes into the picture. He and another man, Jacob Wortman, were working in the Department of Vertebrate Paleontology of New York’s American Museum of Natural History; Coggeshall as a preparator (a person who prepares fossils for study and display) and Wortman, as a curator. The AMNH was one of finest museum institutes in the country and the Carnegie museum’s main competitor. Coggeshall - at just 25 years old - was considered one of the best preparators of his time, and Wortman was no slouch either. But both men were lured away by Holland (and no doubt Carnegie’s money) and soon joined Reed in Medicine Bow to set out and find dinosaurs for the Carnegie Museum.

The trip to the Freezeout Hills northwest of Medicine Bow was miserable. The horse-drawn wagons, laden with a ton of tools and supplies slogged across the High Plains and had to be unloaded and loaded several times to cross makeshift bridges or ford swollen streams. They eventually reached the site where Reed’s colossal fossil had been dug up, but after nearly two months of searching not much fossil additional material was found, certainly not enough to fill Andrew Carnegie’s museum.

Discouraged the men headed eastward about 30 miles where Reed said he knew of other prospects in the dinosaur-rich Morrison Formation. They arrived in Sheep Creek Basin and set up camp there on July 3, 1899.

The Titans of Paleontology in 1899: Paleontologists from the American Museum drop in on paleontologists working the Carnegie quarry at Sheep Creek in Wyoming. Jacob Wortman crouches next to the Diplodocus bones exposed on the quarry floor. The rest of those present are (L-R) Bill Reed, Albert Thompson, William Holland, Henry F. Osborn, W. D. Mathews, Walter Granger, and R. S. Lull. Arthur Coggeshall may have taken the photo.
The Titans of Paleontology in 1899: Paleontologists from the American Museum drop in on paleontologists working the Carnegie quarry at Sheep Creek in Wyoming. Jacob Wortman crouches next to the Diplodocus bones exposed on the quarry floor. The rest of those present are (L-R) Bill Reed, Albert Thompson, William Holland, Henry F. Osborn, W. D. Mathews, Walter Granger, and R. S. Lull. Arthur Coggeshall may have taken the photo.Courtesy Mark Ryan

The next day their luck suddenly took a change for the better. The exact story of the find gets a little confusing. In a 1951 retelling in Carnegie Magazine, Arthur Coggeshall claims he made the initial discovery.

"It was then that the heartbeats of the writer really became loud,” he wrote, “for it was the best prospect any of us had discovered in over two months of hard and disappointing work, and we did so want to make good with a dinosaur for Mr. Carnegie."

Two other accounts (one by Wortman in 1916, and one by paleontologist C. W. Gilmore in 1936) claim Bill Reed found the first remains, and I think the priority of these claims give them more veracity – especially since Wortman was there. But history like anything else has a way of evolving through time and memory.

Whatever the case, they had finally found a dinosaur, and over the summer the skeleton was exhumed, packed up, and shipped back to Pittsburgh. By coincidence, a flock of scientists from around the country and Canada were roaming the state that summer as part of an event called Fossil Fields Expedition sponsored jointly by the Union Pacific Railroad and University of Wyoming. The railroad offered scientists and academics free passage to Laramie, and Wilbur Knight of the UW gave guided tours to many of the state’s geological and paleontological locations where they could take in the scenery and collect rocks and fossils. Many involved in the expedition stopped by the Carnegie’s Sheep Creek quarry to watch the progress there. Paleontologists from the American Museum of Natural History were also in the area digging up their own dinosaurs at the nearby Bone Cabin Quarry. Some of that crew (including Wortman’s and Coggeshall’s old boss, Henry Fairfield Osborn) made the ten-mile trip for a visit and friendly exchange.

When the field season ended, the Carnegie team returned to Pittsburgh to start the process of preparing the fossils. Over the winter it became apparent that some bones of the Diplodocus were missing so further expeditions were mounted and remains of three more specimens of Diplodocus were gathered from Sheep Creek and the Big Horns region of Wyoming to complete the skeleton.

As Coggeshall and Reed prepared the bones, paleontologist John Bell Hatcher (who had been hired as curator to replace the short-lived Wortman) made an exhaustive study of the fossils and determined the remains were those of a new species, which he named Diplodocus carnegii in honor of the museum’s benefactor. Mr. Carnegie’s friends soon nicknamed the dinosaur, Dippy.

The process of preparing and mounting a dinosaur skeleton for display, especially one that’s 84 feet long is an onerous task, requiring thousands of man-hours and several years to complete. As the Carnegie’s preparator-in-chief, Arthur Coggeshall devised new methods for fossil preparation, and for mounting large dinosaur skeletons that are still used today. He innovated the use of pneumatic hammers and sandblasting in the laboratory for extracting fossil bone from hard rock, and for mounting the Carnegie sauropod, he fashioned a curved steel rod upon which all the vertebrae were assembled. Then, as other bones were added to the skeleton, additional steel was used - as inconspicuously as possible - to reinforce and attach them to the vertebral column.

A dinosaur for Paris: Arthur Coggeshall (sitting at left with legs crossed) poses with workers and William Holland (on Coggeshall's immediate left) at the Paris museum during the mounting of the cast of Dipolodocus carnegii, c. 1908.
A dinosaur for Paris: Arthur Coggeshall (sitting at left with legs crossed) poses with workers and William Holland (on Coggeshall's immediate left) at the Paris museum during the mounting of the cast of Dipolodocus carnegii, c. 1908.Courtesy Library of Congress
But even before Dippy went on display at the Carnegie museum (for which a new wing was being built), the Diplodocus became a sensation worldwide. King Edward VII while visiting Andrew Carnegie at his Skibo Castle in Scotland saw a drawing of the Diplodocus and coveted one for himself. Carnegie obliged the king by having Coggeshall create molds for an exact plaster cast of the dinosaur. Italian sculptors were hired to fashion a few of the missing bones. Since the dinosaur wing of the Carnegie museum was still under construction, Coggeshall and two assistants used his ingenious steel framework to set up and then disassembled a test-mount of the king’s cast in the Pittsburgh Exposition Building. The cast elements were then packed up and shipped to England in 1905. Holland and Coggeshall accompanied the 30 some crates of disassembled bones and supervised the mounting of the king’s dinosaur at the British Museum. On May 12th, under much hoopla and fanfare, Andrew Carnegie himself was on hand to present his namesake dinosaur to the king of England and the world.

This became the first of several casts that Carnegie would donate to the heads-of-state in several European and South American capitols. The original skeleton was finally unveiled in Pittsburg in 1907 when the newly finished Dinosaur Hall was opened. After that Arthur Coggeshall spent the next five years traveling to foreign cities across three continents to mount exquisite copies of Carnegie’s pride and joy. Coggeshall and Holland were feted and celebrated in each city and bestowed with special honors and awards as they erected and presented each beautiful cast of Andrew Carnegie’s own dinosaur. As hard as it is to believe today, these replicas of italicizedDiplodocus carnegii presented millions of people their first chance ever to see a dinosaur, and in each city, hoards of the public clamored to see them.

In 1909, Carnegie paleontologist Earl Douglass discovered the extremely rich bone-bed in northeastern Utah that would eventually become Dinosaur National Monument. By then Coggeshall had added Curator of Public Education to his title, and besides supervising the preparation and mounting of the skeletons, he also documented the new dinosaur site by taking many of the historic photographs of quarry work being done there.

Soon after, Coggeshall left the Carnegie and turned his attention to science lecturing and museum administration. Now come’s the kicker to this story. In 1928, Coggeshall became the director of the St. Paul Institute of Science in St. Paul, Minnesota, the precursor to the Science Museum of Minnesota, the very entity for which I’m writing! Coggeshall served as director for just one year, but in that short time he helped redirect the institute toward becoming a more modern organization. While in Minnesota, he also gave several hour-long educational lectures in and around the state. Known as The Coggeshall Lectures, his subjects included paleontology, archaeology and other natural science topics and were often illustrated with glass slides or motion pictures. Some titles, such as “Turning Back the Clock Ten Million Years” and “Hunting Big Game in the Rocks”, were based on Coggeshall’s work in paleontology.

Arthur Coggeshall went on to serve as director to the Illinois State Museum in Springfield, and then the Natural History Museum in Santa Barbara, California. He died in 1958, but his many innovations in fossil preparation and mounting large dinosaur exhibitions are still used in today’s museums. His most memorable accomplishment, the Star-Spangled Dinosaur called Dippy is still on view at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh as well as in museums on three continents. Not a bad legacy for a guy with a public school education from Bridgeport, Connecticut.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story
From Trophies to Treasure
Dippy unveiled (previous Buzz story)
History of Dinosaur National Monument


Boom!Courtesy sfllaw
Word on the street is that the world may be ending on Saturday. Unfortunately, I’m not sure exactly when—I’m not keyed into the ins and outs of religious fear mongering enough to make an exact calculation—so I can’t tell you if you should cancel your lunch date, or if you’ve got until midnight to continue doing whatever it is you do. Jigsaw puzzles? Hard drugs? Far be it from me to judge.

And, you know, normally I’d dismiss this as an organization’s or individual’s effort to gain attention through a frightening claim that has no basis in reality, but … watermelons are freaking exploding in China!

Whatever holy scripture this May 21st thing was extrapolated from, I guarantee there’s a passage in there along the lines of, “And in the east, melons shall burst on the vine. Their shells will rupture, and tiny seeds shall fly forth. Juice will be everywhere.” I mean, it would fit, right? This is the sort of thing that always happens before the end of the world! How am I going to explain this to my cat?!

Now, some folks—I’ll call them unbelievers—insist that the exploding melons actually aren’t bursting from anxiety over the imminent end of everything they care about. Instead, they say that they’re bursting because of a lazy farming technique, where a chemical called forchlorfenuron has been over applied. Forchlorfer… whatever, causes increased cell division in fruit, and is sprayed on watermelons and their ilk to get bigger, faster growing fruit. The resulting watermelons can be oddly shaped, and don’t taste all that great, but they’re supposed to be harmless to humans. And, apparently, they can explode.

Now, generally we keep an open mind regarding fertilizers and high-yield farming techniques around here, but this is a good example of the hazards of wily-nily application of chemicals to farms. (Assuming, for the sake of argument, that this isn’t a symptom of the apocalypse.) If there’s no significant nutritional gain, it seems kind of crazy. And if this chemical is causing explosion in the crop it’s supposed to help, it makes one wonder what its effect will be when it’s absorbed in the soil or washed off the fields (and into other vegetation). And there’s the question of whether farmers should be allowed to do this. And what the market conditions are that make them want to/need to use chemicals like forchlorfenuron. And if there’s a benefit to using it in any situations.

But that’s all probably very complicated, and should only be considered by people who don’t believe that the world is on its way out. Me? I’m not even going to brush my teeth before Saturday.


Actually, no.: Possibly not, anyway,
Actually, no.: Possibly not, anyway,Courtesy Garthhh
Don’t you hate it when someone tells you something, and you can’t tell them they’re wrong (just so you feel smarter than them, of course) because you don’t currently have any facts backing up your argument that they’re dumb, and maybe not a good person?

I hate that. I mean, I don’t even want to come up with an alternative argument in those situations—I just want the other person to know that they’re wrong. Again.

Example: You’re running your mouth around the fossil-fuels-aren’t-sustainable track, when someone says, “No, you’re right. They aren’t.” That, naturally, is a good start for a response, but then they go on to say, “And that’s why we have to get on the nuclear energy train, and we have to get on it hard. Done correctly, nuclear energy can provide lots and lots of clean energy, without the carbon emissions you hate. And we will no longer have to rely on foreign sources of oil. And blah blah blah. Check. Mate.”

And you just stand there, flapping your mouth open and shut, but no words are coming out, because you’re all out of words. Maybe you don’t even have anything against nuclear power—you just need to prove that person wrong. Who does he think he is?!

If a similar situation were to happen, except with, say, horse racing as the subject, you’d be back in your home town, Sit Creek, even though you hated it there so much, and you split as soon as you finished high school. Too bad for you. I can’t tell you anything contradictory about horse racing.

But if a similar situation were to come up, and the topic was nuclear energy, well, you’d be in luck. See a professor from the University of Adelaide just published a paper laying out exactly why nuclear power is not the solution to our future energy woes. Lucky, lucky you.

It’s not nuclear energy in general that the prof has a problem with, it’s that nuclear energy can’t be scaled up to replace fossil fuels (which will indeed need to be replaced eventually.) Doing so would be too expensive, require too many resources, and involve too much danger.

Today, we’re using about 15 terawatts of power around the world each year. That’s not just for electricity, it’s also for heat and transportation fuels and all that. But, at some point, we may be using electricity for those things as well.

Of those 15 terawatts, we generate about 375 gigawatts in nuclear plants—that’s just 2.5% of our global energy consumption. (Wikipedia puts the figure at 6%, but maybe that’s delivered energy, or something. Let’s leave it be for now.)

By this scientist’s estimates, we’d need 15,000 nuclear reactors going at once to produce 15 terawatts of power (and this is assuming that our power consumption doesn’t go up. Which it for sure will.). Given a nuclear power station’s lifetime of about 50 years, to maintain 15,000 working power stations, we’d need to commission a new plant and decommission an old one every day. And, currently, it tales 6-12 years to build a plant, and 20 or so years to decommission one. This would be very difficult and expensive to coordinate.

And it would take a lot of land—all those plants in the process of being built, run, and decommissioned would need about 8 square miles of land. That land would have to be near a large body of water, but also away from large population centers. Tricky.

And, says professor, at the rate we’re currently consuming uranium (our favorite nuclear fuel), it will only last for 80 years. Scaled up to 15 terawatts production, it would last for 5 years. We could potentially start extracting uranium from seawater, a source that could last for thousands of years, but that would be an expensive and energy intensive process itself.

And what of the spent fuel? We still don’t know what to do with it, and all that additional nuclear material (both fuel and waste) would almost certainly increase the proliferation of nuclear weapons around the world.

At any rate, the list goes on, long enough to allow you to shove the argument back into the hot, reeking mouth of whoever was sassing you in the first place. They might bring up technological advances (which the researcher sort of accounts for) or how people are always saying that energy sources, be they nuclear or renewable, aren’t globally scalable, or that presuming that we would use a single sort of energy production for everybody in the world, everywhere in the world, is probably silly … but they’ll probably be feeling so nonplussed in their oafishness that you will have plenty of time to make your escape and set yourself up in another conversation with a much easier opponent, like a child, or a table.

Good luck.


What’s in a super hero?
Superhero schmuperhero
Superhero schmuperheroCourtesy karla_k

Growing up, my dad had the classic Marvel comic heroes like Spiderman and Captain America whereas my brother and I watched and played Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Power Rangers. These days I ask a little more from my heroes. I want them to increase energy efficiency, vanquish upper respiratory diseases like asthma, stop world hunger, and -- Wait! What?? Who’s this?! Gaba-gaba and Plumpy’nut to the rescue! -- Strangely named heroes they may be, but these are among the super foods fighting global malnutrition.

Food insecurity and hunger is a big deal. It affects about 200,000 households in Minnesota, about 13 million households in the United States, and 925 million people (more than the population of the U.S., Canada, and European Union combined!) worldwide. You are more likely to be among these effected populations if you live in a developing country, are female, and/or are a child. With a global population racing towards 9 billion (that’s 9,000,000,000) people, worldwide food insecurity and hunger is increasing rather than decreasing. As we say here in Minnesoooota, “Uff-da! Dat’s a big problem dere.”

Gaba-gaba and Plumpy’nut are being deployed around the world to fill bellies.
(Like) Gaba-gaba: These are probably your everyday, run-of-the mill sweet potatoes.  Super food sweet potatoes usually wear capes.
(Like) Gaba-gaba: These are probably your everyday, run-of-the mill sweet potatoes. Super food sweet potatoes usually wear capes.Courtesy Wally Hartshorn

Essentially, gaba-gaba is a naturally bred (read: not genetically engineered) variety of sweet potato containing an insane amount of essential vitamins and minerals like vitamins A, C, and E, calcium, iron, and folic acid (needed for healthy red blood cells). These nutrients build immunity, improve digestion, strengthen the heart, hydrate the body, improve eyes, and provide energy. But wait! There’s more!! Not only does it do all that, but gaba-gaba is fast growing as well as drought and disease resistant making it ideal for tough climates in places like Mozambique, Africa. Mega-extra bonus: I’ve heard gaba-gaba can be eaten raw or cooked and can even be squeezed for juice or ground into flour! Talk about a versatile veggie.

According to the International Potato Center -- Pause. Did you even know there is an International Potato Center? It’s totally legit. Bono went there with some of his U2 band members! Play. -- As I was saying, the IPC reports that Bono has eaten gaba-gaba to get in shape. “Gabba Gabba Hey!” is also a lyric to “Pinhead” by the Ramones. Clearly, this means that gaba-gaba is pop star endorsed. Coolness.

Meanwhile, Plumpy’nut is a “ready-to-use therapeutic food,” which, to my notion, looks like the kind of food astronauts eat in outer space. Also cool, right?

I imagine the Plumpy’nut recipe card to read something like, “ Step 1: Gather your peanuts, sugar, vegetable fat, milk powder, vitamins, and minerals. Step 2: Pulverize into a smooth paste. Step 3: Enjoy!” Ridiculously simple for a paste that can provide 500,000 calories per 92 gram (about 3.25 ounces) serving, and can be used at home, making it possible to treat severe acute malnutrition without hospitalization. Nutriset, the makers of Plumpy’nut, thought of everything! They even made sure the nutritious paste can last up to two years without refrigeration. Neat, huh?

It’s pretty amazing what science and technology can do to make the world a better place to live. We’ve written about food security, rising global population, and hunger before on the Buzz. I wrote this post a little over a year ago on the subject. It highlights the role of the Institute on the Environment’s Global Landscapes Initiative’s efforts to stretch our agriculture resources and feed a growing population.

I’ll be keeping my eyes out for more super foods and modern day heroes. If you know of any, share them in the comment box below!


The new solar thermal array: And, yes, this was the largest photo I could find on short notice.
The new solar thermal array: And, yes, this was the largest photo I could find on short notice.Courtesy US Department of Energy
A couple of months ago, I noticed something happening on the roof of the RiverCentre, the big building across the street from the Science Museum. After noticing, however, I didn’t give it any more thought. This was for two reasons: because a couple of months ago it was approximately one billion degrees below zero here, and I didn’t want to stand outside looking at roofs any longer than I had to; and because I’m a firm believer that you shouldn’t stare too long at anything you aren’t certain about. Don’t believe me? Examples: the sun (it’ll burn your eyes), chimpanzees (they will literally tear you to pieces), and roadkill (it’s gross).

At any rate, it turned out that the goings-on on the RiverCentre roof would have been largely harmless to watch, and that they were a part of a big, interesting project that I hadn’t heard about—they were installing a large array of solar thermal panels.

Solar thermal panels, just as a reminder, aren’t exactly like the photovoltaic solar panels you might be thinking of. Unlike panels that use sunlight to produce electricity, solar thermal panels absorb the heat in sunlight (or solar radiation, if the distinction bugs you), and uses it to heat water.

So … the new solar array on the RiverCentre is a joint project between the RiverCentre itself, and St. Paul District Energy, another neighbor of the Science Museum, which supplies hot and cold water to buildings downtown for efficient heating and cooling. The array has 144 solar panels, altogether taking up about the area of half a football field, and they should be able to produce about 1 megawatt of power.

Now, compared to a 1,000-megawatt coal or nuclear power station, 1 measly megawatt probably doesn’t seem like much, but it’s nothing to sneeze at. A single megawatt is still approximately enough to power 1,000 homes. Sort of.

It depends on the average consumption of the homes in the area, which varies from region to region, but 1 megawatt is usually touted as the power consumed by 1000 homes. And, in any case, this is a little different, because it’s not feeding an electrical power grid, but a grid of heat energy for downtown—any extra heat that’s not used by the RiverCentre facilities will be fed back to District Energy, which will redistribute it around the city.

The new array is the largest of its kind in the Midwest, and, in addition to creating a local energy source (as opposed to buy coal or natural gas from somewhere else), it should reduce St. Paul’s carbon dioxide emissions by about 900,000 pounds annually—more or less the amount created by 90 vehicles in a year.

Again, 90 cars’ worth of CO2 may not seem like much, but it’s a start, and it’s kind of cool that that’s just from the panels on one building. And, with the help of a million and a half dollar stimulus from the Minnesota Office of Energy Security, a mix of solar thermal and photovoltaic solar panels are going to be installed on 10 more buildings along the Central Corridor. In addition to the new light rail line from St. Paul to Minneapolis, the Central Corridor is meant to be a showcase for a bunch of energy innovation projects. (Click that last link for a list of projects—there are a whole bunch.)

Pretty slick. (More info and links here.)


Earth, our place in space
Earth, our place in spaceCourtesy NASA
Life scientists study…well, life. They want to know everything about living things on planet Earth. One of the first things biologists want to know is who’s here. What kinds of plants and animals live in a forest? --or in a field? –or in the ocean?

If you’re an oceanographer who studies marine mammals, perhaps you’d go to sea on a ship with a good pair of binoculars and hunt for whales. As you focused your binoculars you’d be able to see different kinds of whale species. As you looked closer, for example at Humpback Whales, you'd see that each individual whale has a different black-white pattern on its tail. You might even take a biopsy, a small sample of whale flesh, and do a more detailed study of genetic differences among individual Humpbacks.

But what if you’re a microbial oceanographer? You sure can't use binocs to hunt for microbes! How can you study individual differences among tiny creatures that are only one-one-hundredth the width of a human hair? How do you hunt and capture single-celled bacteria, like Prochlorococcus, the most common bacterial species in the world’s ocean?

Invent something!

laser-based micro-fluidic system
laser-based micro-fluidic systemCourtesy C-MORE
Young scientists, Sebastien Rodrigue and Rex Malmstrom, at the Center for Microbial Oceanography: Research and Education (C-MORE) were doing research in Dr. Sallie Chisholm’s C-MORE lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology when they adapted a “laser-based micro-fluidic system” used commonly by medical researchers, for the study of marine bacteria. With this method they could put each individual tiny Prochlorococcus cell into its own little pool of seawater.

And then the excitement began.

ProchlorococcusCourtesy Dr. Anne Thompson, MIT
Even in scanning microscope photographs, each Prochlorococcus looks like just another teeny, tiny balloon; we can't see any individual differences. However, Sebastien and Rex used fast and inexpensive genetic methods and discovered an extraordinary variety of individual differences among Prochlorococcus. Of course the variety among these microbes doesn't have to do with tail patterns, like whales. Prochlorococcus vary in their method of getting nutrients, like iron, out of seawater.

So what? Why do we care?

We care A LOT because microbes like Prochlorococcus are operating at the nitty gritty level of cycling not only iron, but also other elements in the ocean. Like carbon. That's right, as in carbon dioxide accumulating in our atmosphere -- and ocean -- causing climate change and associated problems. The more we understand about individual differences among oceanic microbes, the more we'll understand how they influence and respond to changes in Earth's climate.