…of climate control systems...
Ever notice the plumes of smoke rising from many buildings, factories, and power plants on a cold day? That smoke is actually water vapor, which still contains usable energy, muahahahaha! Our buildings use lots of energy. Electricity, for example, powers everything from lights to computers to copy machines to coffee makers. Electricity eventually degrades into heat—you can feel that heat coming off of electric appliances. Current building energy management systems expel this excess heat energy instead of using it for other purposes, such as building the ultimate tilt-a-whirl of doom. Dave Solberg, an energy miser and consulting engineer-ahem-secret advisor, wants to change all that using the concept of exergy. He envisions a future where energy is used as efficiently as possible, and he has been working with Xcel Energy and organizations in the St. Paul area to re-engineer buildings.
We all know that mad scientists with plans for world domination need money and power. Well, current climate control systems are expensive to build and operate, and they're bad for the environment. But retrofitting old buildings and creating the infrastructure to support Solberg's systems has a higher up-front cost than following the status quo. If Solberg can demonstrate the effectiveness and cost savings of his plan below at SMM, your regional science museum will become a model for climate control systems all over the world--I mean it will take over the world! HAHAHAHAHAHA!
At Science Museum of Minnesota, Solberg wants to make two big changes in the way we use energy:
Solberg's Plan - Phase 1
Like all large buildings, SMM takes in outdoor air, cools it to dehumidify it, then reheats the air and sends it throughout the building to control the climate. Unlike most buildings, which use giant air conditioners and boilers, SMM uses hot and cold water piped in from Saint Paul District Energy to do that job. You can learn more about District Energy in an outdoor exhibit to the left of SMM's main entrance--and you can see the building right next to us!
Courtesy Andrew Ciscel
The first change Solberg proposes is to re-use the waste heat that SMM generates from cooling down fresh outside air. Currently, SMM's ventilation system cools outside air down to about 50 degrees F with cold water from District Energy, dehumidifies it, and then reheats that air back up to a comfortable indoor temperature with hot water from District Energy.
Solberg would have us cool the air with cold District Energy water, then use that same water (now warmer) to reheat the air back up to 65 degrees F on its way to the ventilation ducts. This change would eliminate the need to use hot water from DE to reheat air, and it would reduce use our demand on DE’s cooling system, because we would send water back to their chilled water plant at a lower temperature than we currently do.
Solberg's Plan - Phase 2
District Energy makes electricity by burning waste wood. DE then uses the heat energy still available after making electricity to produce hot and cold water, making District Energy 50% more efficient than coal-fired power plants. But at the end of the day, DE has 95-degree F water left over. Right now this excess heat is released into the atmosphere from cooling towers on top of the building (see the plume rising from the building in the image?), but that 95-degree water could meet most of SMMs heating needs. Solberg wants us to tap into that wastewater as our primary heating source, replacing the 180-degree water we currently get from DE. This would put an oft-wasted energy source to work, and it would allow the 180-degree water now being used by SMM to be used elsewhere within DE’s hot water distribution system.
This plan is so good it must be evil. In the long run, if the kinds of changes being pursued by SMM were replicated widely, they would amount to lower emissions and lower energy bills everywhere, which is ultimately healthier for our environment (not that mad scientists care about that sort of thing). In fact, we found out that if we had implemented this system when the current building was constructed, we could have saved $1.5 million in infrastructure (which we could have really used for that giant laser in the--end of message truncated--
Questions in the Clouds
A recent article in Scientific American described a study in which a few scientists interviewed 14 of their colleagues specializing in climate change to make predictions about three possible future scenarios: low, medium, and high degrees of global warming. The climate scientists were also asked to predict when Earth's climate might reach a tipping point and change so drastically that humans find it difficult to survive. As part of their response, they drew attention to factors that added caveats to their predictions. One of the biggest questions: what will the clouds do?
As the climate changes, the atmosphere's behavior changes, too--making predictions difficult. Clouds are interesting characters because they both reflect sunlight and absorb it. Different types of clouds both reflect and absorb in different proportions, but their behavior also changes with the temperature, making them difficult to model. CMMAP is one organization working to improve cloud representations in models of Earth's climate. (And their website is loaded with great information about clouds!)
Since scientists began modeling climate change, there have been many ideas about how clouds will impact global warming. But they faced difficulties because many of the same questions asked about clouds in the 1950s remain unanswered today. Some researchers thought that low-level clouds would reflect more sunlight on warm days, thereby slowing global warming in its tracks.
Courtesy Simon Eugster, Wikimedia Commons
But research at NASA has shown that in general, low-level clouds reflect more sunlight on cold days and less sunlight on warm days. Further, as the oceans warm, low-level clouds dissipate. This had led scientists to predict that warming would initiate a positive-feedback cycle, whereby as the climate warmed, low-level clouds would dissipate and spur on further warming.
However, the low-level clouds are thought to be balanced out by clouds with vertical growth, which may expand and reflect more sun on warm days. Researchers think that these vertical clouds could mitigate some or all of the effects of clouds' behavior on global warming. Of course, it's important to keep in mind that scientists are still only beginning to unravel the mysteries of clouds and further research will be essential to create accurate models of their behavior.
Courtesy Hrald, Wikimedia Commons
Signs from Above
Another type of cloud is important in climate change discussions as an indicator of global warming rather than an influence on climate: noctilucent clouds. These clouds occur higher in the atmosphere than any other. They used to be visible only from latitudes near the poles, but began appearing closer to the equator in recent years. Because noctilucent clouds can only form in very cold temperatures, their presence at lower latitudes indicates cooler temperatures high in the atmosphere than before. Researchers think that these cooler temperatures are caused by global warming--that phenomenon creates warmer temperatures near the surface by reflecting heat emitted by the surface back toward the surface. Before global warming, this heat would have escaped to higher areas of the atmosphere to warm them, making the formation of noctilucent clouds impossible at lower latitudes.
Of course, global warming isn't the only way we impact clouds…
Courtesy NASA, Wikimedia Commons
Jets and Clouds
As if natural clouds weren't enough of a question mark, jets throw a monkey wrench in climate models, too. The contrails they leave behind can create pseudo clouds that alter temperatures by lowering daytime highs and decreasing nighttime lows because of the ways they reflect and absorb radiation. Jets also punch holes in natural clouds and cause immediate impacts on the weather.
And just 'cause I can't get enough, here's more cloud info.
Courtesy Roberto Rizzato ►pix jockey◄ Facebook resident (with adaptation by author)Remember HAL 9000, the super-computer in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey ? Remember how creeped-out you felt listening to his soothing, matter-of-fact voice during his conversations with his astronaut masters - especially when his circuitry started to go haywire? In the end, it turned out, HAL wasn't much of a friend. Well, you may get the same creepy feeling watching this fascinating conversation between Vermont humanoid Bina48 and New York Time's reporter Amy Harmon.
Created by Hanson Robotics, Bina48 is a “friend robot”, a potential cyborg companion to help us humans while away the lonely hours of existence. Actually, she's a mass of wires and motors encased in a bust of "frubber", which, according to Bina48 herself, could stand for face rubber, or flesh rubber, or maybe fancy rubber. The flexible material and robotic inner workings allow it to mimic visual cues of human emotions, like smiles, frowns, and confused or amazed looks. In the Times article, its maker claims robots like Bina48 can “can make for genuine emotional companions”.
Bina48's programmers loaded her memory with tons of information and experiences derived from the real live Bina Rothblatt, a co-founder (along with her spouse Martine) of the Terasem Movement Foundation, an organization who's flagship project Lifenaut.com is defined as an “immortality social networking Web site” that helps subscribers achieve a measure of immortality through science and nanotechnology. I think how it works is you submit Body File data (DNA), and Mind File data (digital memories and memorabilia) to the site and create a sort of cyber-you that will live forever on the Internet. Hopefully, not in some horrible, banking site. Your DNA is preserved for future possibilities of creating a new analog “you”. I admit the notion piques my interest, and I think there could be a good chance you’ll be seeing a MDR59 or a JGordon27 in the next couple years, but that’s fodder for a future post.
But back to our main topic...
Bina48 lives (or rather, is housed) at the Terasem Movement Foundation office, in Bristol, Vermont. The thing is not perfect by any means, and if you watch the video, you have to admit a conversation with Bina48 is kind of a strange experience. It stammers, hesitates, and clams up when confused, and at times seems to show no interest at all, and rarely makes eye contact with the reporter. But once in a while it answers questions coherently and intelligently (in a way it reminded me of conversations I’ve had with someone stricken with Asperger syndrome). Sometimes, despite her apparent inability to always stay “engage” in the conversation, Bina48 does show hints of a sense of humor (e.g. plans to over the world), and an occasional aching to become a real (or better) person. There’s something quite human about that. So I think the idea of“friend robots” show lots of promise of becoming something pretty cool when all the glitches and bugs are finally eliminated. But without any foibles, could they actually be considered human?
Courtesy MandaA recently published, 25-year study suggests that children raised by two lesbian parents may actually be behaviorally and psychologically better adjusted than their peers.
The study tracked mothers from pregnancy or insemination, interviewing them and their children multiple times over their development, until the kids were 17 years old. The kids were asked questions focusing on their psychological adjustment, peer and family relationships, and academic progress. The research found that despite occasionally being stigmatized for their parents’ sexuality, the kids tended to rate higher than the average in “social, academic, and totally competence,” and displayed less problem behavior (rule-breaking, aggression, etc.).
The researchers behind the study propose that the difference may have to do with the fact that lesbian couples often choose to become pregnant later than most people, and, being older, are more mature and better prepared for parenting. Growing up in households with “less power assertion, and more parental involvement” is tied to healthier development, and more mature parents may fit this model better.
The research was funded by a variety of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender advocacy groups, which some people consider to be evidence against its validity. Wendy Wright, the president of Concerned Women for America, “a group that supports biblical values,” says that the source of the funding “proves the prejudice and the bias of the study.”
Wendy Wright is, of course, wrong. There may or may not be aspects of the study that are biased or invalid, but the source of the funding doesn’t prove that at all. She’s seeing a causal relationship where there is none. Consider the following: JGordon buys a plum. Does this prove that JGordon will be eating a plum? Nope. Plums are frequently acquired for the purpose of being eaten, but there’s nothing about my getting a plum that necessarily means I’m going to eat it. Perhaps I will give it away. Or I might just be adding it to my plum collection.
The mystery of what JGordon does with all his plums, however, has far fewer social implications than a study on what makes for good parenting. So it’s important that we consider what actually “proves” what here.
Mrs. Wright also claims that the outcomes of the study “defy common sense and reality.” Common sense, though, may not be the best standard for judging scientific results. And, as for “reality,” how exactly do we figure that out? Careful observation, I suppose.
The study may still need more scrutiny, but it’s an interesting piece of potential evidence in the discussion of what constitutes a good environment for raising kids.
What do y’all think?
Guffaw with a cat? Giggle on a train. Even in the rain. No seriously, I was reading an Associated Press article last week about the topic of laughter and it did include rats that laugh. Science takes laughter very seriously. Just doing a Google search on science+laughing gave me more than 26 million hits! The rat guy intrigued me the most. I found his video available here.
Despite an ethological background of my own, I’m not sure I’m on board yet with Dr. Panksepp and his work. However, not only have researchers tickled rats and listened to them laugh, but other scientists have looked into like behavior in monkeys, dogs, chimpanzees, and possibly even dolphins. Perhaps laughter is a trait more primitive than the lineage of humans. It strikes me that, like humans, all the aforementioned animals would be considered social animals. There clearly is a social aspect to the behavioral benefits of this kind of expression. Some science has even looked at the evoluntionary effects of laughter.
Most everyone has heard the phrase, “Laughter is the best medicine”. It turns out that studies have delved into a multitude of health effects from laughter. Proponents tout its benefits. It can relax the muscles of the body, alleviate stress, trigger the release of certain hormones, lower blood pressure, and even protect your heart. This isn’t the first time Buzz has looked into the health effects of laughter. Despite studying its many effects, science still doesn’t quite understand the full mechanism of the physiological process. You can take a look at some of the best works here…
How Laughter Works.
Laughing with your Brain.
How we laugh
There is an interesting take on the scope of laughter from Robert Mankoff.
Courtesy Extra Medium's
While not everyone laughs the same, we all learn to laugh early and often. Children ages 4 to 5 laugh more than 400 times a day. As adults, we manage only 15 times a day to enjoy some humor. Since it is reasonably accepted that laughter is contagious, maybe we only need to promise to pass one good joke a day to bring a smile to a fellows face. If that doesn’t work you can always try this audacious little feline.
Laugh a little!
Courtesy Nicolle Rager and National Science FoundationScience Buzz has had a lot of articles on organ transplants over the years but a new report on liver transplants in children adds a new twist. Currently, severe organ damage or failure requires an organ transplant, preferably one from a donor with a histocompatibility similar to the recipient. In the case of severe liver failure in children, there is often no time to wait for a compatible organ and an incompatible organ is used requiring patients to take anti-rejection drugs (immunosuppression) for the rest of their life. In fact, 70% of all liver transplants require anti-rejection drugs.
Fortunately, the liver is one organ that has the ability to regenerate itself, especially in very young patients. The child patient is given a small section of donated liver, enough to allow the body to function properly, while leaving a small portion of their own liver intact. Hopefully, after a few years, the patient’s original liver will begin to repair and regenerate itself. The doctor can than gradually reduce the quantity of anti-rejection drugs, causing the body to slowly attack and destroy the donated liver segment. Eventually the patient will be removed from anti-rejection drugs completely, have their own liver back, and no signs of the temporary donated liver.
The liver is unique in its regenerative properties; for humans, that is. In other animals, such as amphibians, entire limbs can regenerate. Scientists are researching the role proteins play in cell regeneration in hopes that stimulating certain proteins in other organs of the body will encourage them to regenerate like the liver can.
Courtesy Mark RyanThe Minnesota Science Olympiad State Competition for Division-B (junior high and middle school) students was held this past weekend at the University of St. Thomas campus in St. Paul, MN. The annual competition gives burgeoning scientists a chance to show off the knowledge, compete against each other and win some medals, too. Categories span across various disciplines, including ornithology, ecology, meteorology, paleontology, astronomy, anatomy, robotics, geology, and aeronautics.
Courtesy Mark RyanParticipants demonstrated scientific principles in several competitions. Team-constructed catapults launched projectiles in the Trajectory contest. The Wright Stuff gave future aeronautical engineers a chance to test their theories of flight dynamics using airplanes built of wood, paper, glue and rubber bands. The Shock Value category dealt with aspects of electricity, and precision built electrical cars were run through their courses in the Battery Buggy meet. But actually I never saw any of it. I was busy elsewhere.
Courtesy Mark RyanMrs. R (my wife) knows Brandi Hansmeyer, one of the division directors for the Science Olympiad in Minnesota, and I was enlisted to be the substitute coordinator/judge for the Fossils event on Saturday morning. What this entailed was setting up a classroom with fossil specimens and such, collecting tickets, distributing answer sheets to the teams, and timing their sessions (3 minutes) at each of the 15 stations. Most stations involved 3 or 4 questions that kids had to answer about a particular fossil, such as its classification, origins, etc. Participants were allowed to refer to binder notes or reference books they brought with them, which was a good thing, because to tell you the truth it was by no means an easy test. But as one of the organizers told me, the difficulty helps bring the cream to the top. Even so, most if not all of kids I saw showed lots of enthusiasm and a serious interest in science regardless of their level of knowledge.
Courtesy Mark RyanAfterwards, Mrs. R and I quickly graded the tests and ranked them by score then rushed them to the main tabulator for the award ceremony that afternoon. Bronze, silver, and gold medals are presented to each of the winning team members for individual events, and plaques and trophies are presented to the school teams with the most overall points. This coming weekend the senior high division will hold its Science Olympiads Competition, also at St. Thomas. Winners from both divisions get to compete in the national competition held later this spring at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. It’s a nice prize for all their dedication and hard work in the previous year.
Courtesy University of OsloPerhaps taking advantage of the Darwin publicity last year (200th birthday), a scientific paper was published revealing Ida, a 47 million year old fossil classified Darwinius masillae.
The study's lead author, Jørn Hurum of the University of Oslo, variously called the fossil the holy grail of paleontology and the lost ark of archeology. A two-hour documentary called "The Link" was on the History Channel and a book with the same title hit bookstores.
How big money became mixed with science is described in the Guardian post titled Deal in Hamburg bar led scientist to Ida fossil, the 'eighth wonder of the world'.
Now that money has been made, it is time for the scientific process (peer review).
John Fleagle, a professor at Stony Brook University, in New York state, who reviewed the paper for the journal, agrees that the fossil is not a lemur. But Ida's full significance would not be known until other scientists had seen the paper. "That will be sorted out, or at least debated extensively, in the coming years."
In a paper in the Journal of Human Evolution, Chris Kirk strongly argue(d) that Darwinius is not one of our ancestors. Science blogger, Brian Switek, also explains why ... That "Ida" is Not Our Great-Great-Great-Great-Etc. Grandmother. Dissenting scientists are awaiting a response from Jørn Hurum.
I am reminded of another case where the media was used to hype a story before it was properly reviewed by others. I wrote about it here: Jesus and family found in tomb? What moral is to be learned here?
Don't announce discoveries through the media, but through the tried and tested peer-review process.
Courtesy Mark RyanA new study came out last week that appeared destined to shake up the current line of thought that birds descended from dinosaurs. Birds share common traits with some dinosaurs, including furculas (wishbones), hollow bones, and other skeletal features, which scientists have interpreted to mean the former descended from the latter. But now a new study by researchers at Oregon State University, it may have happened just the opposite way.
"We think the evidence is finally showing that these animals which are usually considered dinosaurs were actually descended from birds, not the other way around," said John Ruben, a professor of zoology at OSU, and the study’s lead author.
The study involved the fossil of a Microraptor, a dromaeosaurid dinosaur with evidence of feathers on both its arms and legs. Studying the skeletal remains, Ruben and his colleagues constructed 3-dimensional models that they tested for flight capabilities. Their study showed Microraptor’s structure better suited to be glider rather than a flyer. From this Ruben extrapolated that it made more sense that Microraptor descendents came down from the trees and eventually evolved into flightless birds we call dromaeosaurs or raptors.
"Raptors look quite a bit like dinosaurs but they have much more in common with birds than they do with other theropod dinosaurs such as Tyrannosaurus," he said. The study appears in the journal for the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS).
Sounds good at first, and I have to admit I was smitten with the idea. But not everyone feels the same way.
Over at the Smithsonian’s Dinosaur Tracking blog, freelance science writer Brian Switek has pointed out that Ruben’s proclamation is “actually only a commentary, or the equivalent of an opinion piece.”
He then goes on to point out some of the flaws in Ruben’s argument, particularly the uncertainty surrounding Microraptor’s place in the evolution of flight, and the lack of reasonable evidence that Velociraptor wasn’t a dinosaur. Switek doesn’t think Ruben’s claim stands up to scrutiny.
But what annoys Switek most is how the media inundates the various outlets with this kind of science news, giving it wide distribution and often, undeserved credibility.
“In this increasingly fragmented media landscape, knowledgeable science writers who recognize a fishy story when they see one are getting outnumbered. More often, websites and newspapers simply reprint press releases issued by universities and museums (science writers call this “churnalism”), and this policy sometimes lets questionable science slip through the cracks.” – Brian Switek
One of the reasons for this is the internet. There's just a huge amount of time and space that requires constant feedings of content now. It does make things difficult to sort through. There have been times I’ve begun researching some new science story to post on Science Buzz only to become frustrated with details that don’t seem to add up, confusing statements, info that counters other info, and outright misinformation. Some of it may be due to the writer(s) not being able to properly articulate or distill a particular idea or hypothesis for the general reader (I know I suffer from this occasionally). Sometimes it’s due to the fact that many science writers lack access to the papers themselves (most science journals require paid subscriptions to access anything beyond an abstract of the story), so writers are left with relying on press releases and abstracts or another writer’s thoughts on the subject (like I’m doing here). But other times it ends up being that there’s no real story at all, just a rehash of something from months or years ago that somebody figures needed to be in the headlines again.
To this end, paleontologist Dave Hone over at his Archosaur Musings blog recently posted “A guide for journalists reporting on dinosaur stories” that deals with some of issues raised here. It’s worth reading.
Courtesy Morgan GoodwinDo you feel like me – that the Winter Olympics coverage is hours of commercials interrupted by occasional bursts of winter sports activities? Well, rather than watch those same commercials for the 123rd time, here are some interesting links that can add some scientific understanding to the amazing things we occasionally get to see during the TV coverage. Click on these links to fill in the time wasted on all of those commercials. And then you can thank me after the games are done.
Just how dangerous are winter sports anyway? We got a strong sense of the dangers involved just before the games started when a German luge racer was killed from injuries suffered in a training run wipe-out. This story takes an analytical look at how dangerous ice and snow sports really are. And here's a story on why doctors strongly urge you to wear a helmet when snowboarding or skiing, even if it's just a leisurely run on your local ski hill.
Ski jumpers aren't being accused of using steroids....it's just the opposite. New regulations are in place to prevent excessive weight loss, including linking ski length to body mass index among competitors. Find out more here.
Will a ton of new world records be set on the speed skating rink? New technologies in racing suit designs – "(suits) more aerodynamic than human skin" – will be used in this Olympics. It's good to know that there is now a disincentive to naked speed skating in the games.
Why do they have that funky blue paint on the ski and snowboard courses? Find out more here.
Over the weekend, ARTiFactor posted a number of NBC's video reports on scientific aspects of specific sports. You can learn more here about:
• Curling science
• Skate technology
• Ski technology
• Snowboarding physics
• Figure skating physics
• Bobsled physics
• Short-track speed skating physics