Stories tagged Scientific Inquiry

Oct
19
2010

Mrs. Spink
Mrs. SpinkCourtesy Dana Spink
On September 2, Dana Spink, grade 6 science teacher from Toledo, OR, became a star when she stepped aboard the oceanographic research vessel, the R/V Kilo Moana (Hawaiian for “oceanographer”) for a week of discovery. She was part of the STARS program (Science Teachers Aboard Research Ships) operated by C-MORE (Center for Microbial Oceanography: Research and Education) at the University of Hawai`i's School of Ocean, Earth Science & Technology.

Decreasing Ocean pH (meaning Increasing Acidity) Correlates with Increasing Carbon Dioxide
Decreasing Ocean pH (meaning Increasing Acidity) Correlates with Increasing Carbon DioxideCourtesy C-MORE
Ever since 1988 scientists from UH’s HOT program (Hawai`i Ocean Time-series) have been gathering monthly baseline data from station ALOHA, a deep-water site about 60 miles north of Honolulu. This data lead to the discoveries about rising sea surface temperatures and ocean acidification. Dana and two other teachers were part of this continued ocean chemistry and physics data collection, as they worked alongside shipboard scientists at station ALOHA.

The marine engineer is getting ready to deploy the plankton net off the stern of the ship.
The marine engineer is getting ready to deploy the plankton net off the stern of the ship.Courtesy Dana Spink
Copepods, Members of the Zooplankton
Copepods, Members of the ZooplanktonCourtesy C-MORE
Dana also came face-to-face with Pacific Ocean micro-critters that were captured in a plankton net. What a variety there were! Some were phytoplankton, the microscopic floating plants of the open ocean, and others were tiny animals belonging to the zooplankton. As a whole, plankton are extremely important to the oceanic ecosystems because they form the base of most food webs. Dana used dichotomous keys from C-MORE's Plankton science kit to identify the open-ocean specimens.

Want to find out more about gadgets and shipboard procedures that the STARS used, like CTDs, fluorometers, flow cytometers and other shipboard procedures? Visit Mrs. Spink's blog!

Oct
13
2010

Fossils in hand: A small six-inch square area of ground at a site near Cannon Falls, MN contains a handful of fossils.
Fossils in hand: A small six-inch square area of ground at a site near Cannon Falls, MN contains a handful of fossils.Courtesy Mark Ryan
Today is National Fossil Day! It’s a day set aside to raise and promote public awareness of the educational and scientific value of fossils found on public lands and elsewhere - and the importance of preserving them for future study. The day is co-sponsored by the National Park Service and the American Geological Institute, and is the first of what organizers hope will be an annual day of fossil appreciation.

Several national parks, museums, and professional organizations throughout the country are celebrating by hosting special events. Check here for national park activities, or check your favorite local museum’s website for NFD events in your area.

The Science Museum of Minnesota will have a slightly belated celebration of the day this coming Saturday (October 16) from 1pm-4pm with special fossil activities taking place in several galleries, including a first glimpse at the new mammoth skull that’s been under preparation in the paleo lab. The skull will be out on the floor in the Dinosaur and Fossils gallery.

Since the weather’s been so nice here in the Twin Cities area, I celebrated the day the best way I know how: by going fossil hunting. One of my favorite spots to collect is near the town of Cannon Falls, located about a forty-minute drive from my house in Minneapolis. I tossed my rock hammer, bags and other collecting implements (i.e. something to kneel on) into the backseat of my car and headed southeast.

There's fossils in that there ditch: as unlikely as it looks, the exposure of Decorah shale along CR 25 near Cannon Falls, MN is a prime fossil collecting site.
There's fossils in that there ditch: as unlikely as it looks, the exposure of Decorah shale along CR 25 near Cannon Falls, MN is a prime fossil collecting site.Courtesy Mark Ryan
There are three or four locations in the Cannon Falls area where I like to collect. One of them is quite well known, and has been used by students of all ages for fossil field trips (I first visited it in the 1970s as part of a paleontology class I took at the University of Minnesota). The site outcrops along Goodhue county road 25 at the crest of a hill just a couple miles out of town. It looks like any other road ditch, but it’s one of the best fossil sites in the state. Fossil motherlode: New fossils seem to come out of nowhere no matter how many times you scan the same patch of ground.
Fossil motherlode: New fossils seem to come out of nowhere no matter how many times you scan the same patch of ground.Courtesy Mark Ryan
The fossils found there are the remains of ancient marine life that lived on the bottom of a shallow sea that covered much of southern Minnesota during the Ordovician period about 450 million years ago. The fauna includes bryozoans (both branches and gumdrop-shaped prasopora), gastropods, horn coral, brachiopods, Cheerio-shaped crinoid stem segments, trilobites and cephalopods. In the Twin Cities the same fossil-bearing strata, known as the Decorah shale, can be found all along the upper banks of the Mississippi river. Ninety feet of the fossiliferous Decorah is exposed in the quarries at Lilydale Regional Park across from downtown St. Paul. Lilydale has been a popular collecting site for many years but access to it involves buying a permit, strenuous climbing, and sometimes precarious perching to get at the fossils. (The St. Paul parks department has closed Lilydale for the rest of the 2010 season due to flooding).

In Cannon Falls collecting couldn’t be easier. The topography is essentially flat and the fossils are mostly weathered out of their matrix, making for easy pickings.

All in a National Fossil Day's work: This represents about half of what I collected in a few hours.
All in a National Fossil Day's work: This represents about half of what I collected in a few hours.Courtesy Mark Ryan
I split a couple hours of collecting between two different locations: the roadside along CR25, and another site my brother and I learned about on a previous collecting trip from a curious local farmer who had stopped to ask what the heck we were doing in the ditch. I’m not ready to disclose the location of this other site just yet. But I will say it has yielded some very fine specimens in the two years I’ve been collecting there. As you can see by the photos, those few hours spent at Cannon Falls paid off well. Recent heavy rains had brought forth a whole new crop of fossils, making it one of the better field excursions I’ve made to the area in several months. It was a great way to celebrate National Fossil Day.

National Fossil Day art contest entry: and Third Place winner.
National Fossil Day art contest entry: and Third Place winner.Courtesy Mark Ryan
I also celebrated another way by entering a piece in the National Fossil Day art contest. I’m happy to report that I won Third Place in my age bracket (19 & above) with my Digging Fossils graphic (see photo). You can view all the winning entries at the National Fossil Day website.

MORE INFO
Previous Buzz story on Minnesota fossil collecting
Minnesota PaleoWeb

Sep
22
2010

Last night, bkennedy, a couple other SMM staff members, and I attended the Bell Museum's Cafe Scientifique at Bryant-Lake Bowl in Minneapolis. Robert Twilley, a principal investigator with the National Center for Earth-Surface Dynamics, came to speak about the endangered environment of the Mississippi Delta and the BP Deep Horizon Oil Spill. I didn't expect to get a history lesson, but it's just this kind of broad-ranging perspective that will help us understand what is happening to our environment.

It was frustrating to hear Dr. Twilley recount how, as a result of the 1928 Flood Control Act, civil engineers literally remade the Mississippi River and its delta in response to severe flooding events. While this had the temporary effect of protecting area residents from flooding, the plan neglected an important quality of all coastlines: they're dynamic. As sea level has risen over the last century, diverted sediments no longer replenish key areas of the delta and vast stretches of wetland are drowning--the same stretches of wetland that would protect people in the event of a strong hurricane. As a result of the levees, regular floods no longer wash sediments into the area. To complicate matters, projects such as dams farther upstream have cut the overall sediment supply to the Mississippi by about 50 percent in the last couple centuries.

Dynamic Mississippi River Delta: The shaded areas of this image show how the river delta has shifted around over the last 4600 years.
Dynamic Mississippi River Delta: The shaded areas of this image show how the river delta has shifted around over the last 4600 years.Courtesy Urban

Twilley emphasized that it wasn't as if people didn't know the problems these strategies would cause; engineers who opposed flood control tried to call attention to the associated risks. But in the wake of disastrous floods, the public demanded visible public works projects and politicians wanted to please them. Engineers who supported flood control saw it as a noble enterprise to control nature and protect people. And so today we have a tricky situation in the delta area. Disasters increase in intensity, and with them, peoples' insistence on solutions grow. But Twilley cautioned that it is imprudent to act on impulse, especially due to a widespread lack of understanding about how coastal systems work, and to our tendency to favor human safety without consideration for the environment that supports our safety. In short, we undermine ourselves.

"Since 1932, the basin has lost approximately 70% of its total land area."
-lacoast.gov

When Hurricane Katrina hit, the same channel intended to give port access to ships funneled the storm surge farther inland. Twilley described how this perfect storm of civil engineering amplified the devastation brought by the Category 3 hurricane. The response to this devastation, rather than stepping back to reevaluate the situation and consider new ways to accommodate both the delta's needs and humans' needs, was to build a surge barrier that does nothing to restore the natural systems that once built and sustained that landscape over centuries. Contrary to engineers' intentions, Twilley asserted that these strategies will only exacerbate rising sea level and storm surge in the future as the wetlands drown further and the coastline moves inland.

Twilley also explained how, more recently, a lack of recognition of the complex systems in the river delta and along the Gulf Coast exacerbated BP's Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. BP's front end study on the potential impacts of a spill found no cause for concern that the oil would reach the shore. And yet, in spite of booms placed along the coast, the oil did reach the shore, infiltrating wetlands already threatened by rising sea levels and weakened by lack of sedimentation. Thanks to the use of dispersants, the oil is difficult to find and we may not know the full impact of the spill for some time.

This paints a pretty grim picture of the future, but Twilley left us with cause for hope. In one of the areas to which a significant portion of sediment was diverted, the wetlands are actually growing (Atchafalaya). Twilley and his colleagues hope that this and other examples will demonstrate the importance of these natural wetland-building systems and garner support for their plain to mitigate the wetland loss. They want to add river outlets in strategically important places throughout the delta to rebuild the wetlands and help stabilize the landscape. These outlets would only operate during flooding episodes--an approach called controlled flooding (as opposed to the current strategy of flood control), siphoning off extra water and sediment to starved wetlands AND preventing flooding into human settlements. Currently, they're also involved in a project to pipe sediment to areas that need it.

Of course, the new outlet plan won't be without some compromise on the part of humans--some may have to relocate. But given projections of the area for 2100, relocation isn't far off anyway. And the long-term protective benefits of restoring the wetlands might just be worth it.

Sep
03
2010

WHY?: Clouds are hard to model, so let's show them who's boss.
WHY?: Clouds are hard to model, so let's show them who's boss.Courtesy Paige Shoemaker

Next time you look at the clouds, shake your fist and yell at those jerks for making our lives difficult. You might look crazy, but somebody needs to tell those fools.

While it's relatively easy to model temperature changes over the last century thanks to detailed records, clouds are more tricky to understand because we don't have a similar history of cloud observations, and also because they are ornery. So in order to understand how clouds work, scientists are building a body of evidence to model cloud behavior and help show how clouds will impact our weather as well as our climate in the future. I believe they also plan to show those clouds who is the boss of them.

Hurricane help!
Like a child running loose in a toy store, hurricanes have always been difficult to predict because they can unexpectedly change direction. This confounds plans for evacuation, leading some people to leave areas that are never hit, leading others to stay put and potentially face nasty weather because they don't trust the meteorologist, and leading meteorologists to keep Advil in business. But since the 90s, our ability to predict where hurricanes will make landfall has become twice as accurate. This new prescience is due to the development and use of more accurate models of how clouds work, which is in turn due to better understanding of cloud dynamics and faster computers. How about that, punk clouds?

Intensity, however, remains elusive to model. (Shh, don't let them know we have a weakness!)

Go home, son: If wily Earl thought he could outsmart the meteorologists, then he's in for a schoolin'.
Go home, son: If wily Earl thought he could outsmart the meteorologists, then he's in for a schoolin'.Courtesy NASA

"While we pride ourselves that the track forecast is getting better and better, we remain humbled by the uncertainties of the science we don't yet understand," Schott said. "This is not an algebra question where there's only one right answer."

-Timothy Schott, tropical cyclone program leader for the National Weather Service in Silver Spring, Md.

Hurricane Earl
Despite being a "forecasting nightmare," Earl ended up hitting about where it was predicted to go. This means that the right people have been evacuated to avoid injury and fatality. That's right, stick your tail between your legs, Earl.

Connecting to climate
Short-term events such as hurricanes and other storms are difficult to predict, but climate change is a whole other world of uncertainty--again, thanks to those uncouth clouds. Climate scientists are developing new tools, such as satellite technologies that show how much light different cloud types reflect and models that demonstrate localized cloud processes. These approaches look specifically at certain groups of clouds and their patterns of change to add detail to older, larger models that look at climate over larger scales.

Booyah!: Climate computer nerds prevail.
Booyah!: Climate computer nerds prevail.Courtesy Nic McPhee

The problem with the older models is that they have a low resolution that doesn't accurately represent clouds because the clouds are smaller than they can show. Think of it like Google maps--at the beginning, you're looking at the entire planet, or a whole continent--this is similar to older, low-res climate models. The new models are like zooming in on a city--you can see bus stops, restaurants, and highways. But you have to zoom out to see how these small pieces relate to the larger surroundings. In a similar way, the new high-res models are helping to inform older models--this type of work is called multiscale modeling.

Researchers at the Center for Multiscale Modeling of Atmospheric Processes (CMMAP) are developing this exact type of model. You can read about their advances here. This work is important because it brings insight into questions about whether clouds will reflect or trap more sunlight, which can have a big impact on the rate of global warming. It also helps us understand whether geoengineering projects that alter clouds will really have the intended effect. Plus it's just one more way we can pwn clouds.

Jul
15
2010

Current leaderboard (7-15-10): Notice how I'm only 6 points behind JGordon. That will soon change.
Current leaderboard (7-15-10): Notice how I'm only 6 points behind JGordon. That will soon change.Courtesy Science Buzz
There seems to be something seriously messed with the Buzz point system. I say this because lately I’ve noticed my point totals have been jumping all over the place like a kangaroo in withdrawal. At first, I couldn't for the life of me figure out why. I’ve been actively contributing to the blog, doing my part, yet I seem to keep losing points rather than gaining them. But now I think I know the answer.

I’m assuming most of you are familiar with the Science Buzz point system but for those who aren’t, here’s how it works: Each time you contribute something to the blog –be it a story, a photo, or whatever - you get points. The total you’ve accumulated is shown each time you add something, and is also displayed in your “full profile” under the My Account link near the top of the page. You can also see where you rank on the leaderboard. It means nothing of course and there are no prizes for having the most points but there is a sense of satisfaction derived from having more than anyone else, especially JGordon.

Anyway, when I first noticed my points dropping earlier this year, I didn’t give it much thought. But soon my curiosity (and suspicion) was raised, so I started collecting data, which has revealed some very startling numbers. Back on March 26th, I had 1584 points. Four days later and after I had added 8 points for a new story I still had 1584. Where did those 8 points go? I don’t know. It’s a mystery. About 3 weeks later, I managed to increase my number to 1598. But just 3 days after that and after adding at least 4 points it was down to 1587. Goodness, gracious, godness, Agnes! How can that be, I wondered. But then, somehow I managed to cross the 1600-point threshold on May 24, when the total stood at 1606 points. This put me at ease, for at least a little while. And then on May 28th my heart soared when I saw I had a whopping 1619 points. That was the pinnacle, the acme, the proverbial Mount Everest of my Buzz point totals during my data collection period. All was now right with the world. But my elation was short lived, and soon after things started to go downhill. Throughout early June my points hovered around (mostly below) the 1600 mark, dipping as low as 1552 on the 30th. And July’s trend hasn’t been much better. Bottom line: my total has managed to snake its way from a high of 1619 in May to an incredible 1564 today despite posting several dozen stories, which, on average, should have added at least 6 points per post!!?? Whatever was going on, there had to be a logical, scientific explanation, so I compiled a list of possibilities.

1. A major computer program glitch.
2. Crazy mathematics
3. The numbers are tied directly to the Dow-Jones Industrials.
4. A powerful black hole resides in the center of the point system.
5. Global warming.

These are all valid possibilities, but after serious consideration none of them stood up to close scientific scrutiny. So I was left with the only other reasonable explanation: gremlins - those little tormentors who go about sabotaging machinery and causing general mayhem (click here for actual footage). Somehow the little buggers have managed to infiltrate the Buzz point system and are making my life miserable.

I think in my case the gremlins are being led by an especially devious one related to the Norse deity known as Loki. And I suspect he hangs out in the Exhibit Department here at the Science Museum. However, I don’t think he’s clever enough to act alone, so I’m almost certain he’s had co-conspirators helping him with his mischief. But now that their plot has been exposed, I can get back to some serious point accumulation. And I should add that with this post I have finally surpassed JGordon. Not that it makes any difference, mind you.

More gremlins
Other kinds of gremlins

Jul
13
2010

…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!

District Energy burnin' the biomass
District Energy burnin' the biomassCourtesy 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--

Jul
07
2010

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?

Low-level clouds are tricksy: Studies show that these low-level clouds, called stratocumulus, cause climate researchers to squeeze their stress balls.
Low-level clouds are tricksy: Studies show that these low-level clouds, called stratocumulus, cause climate researchers to squeeze their stress balls.Courtesy Benutzer:LivingShadow, Wikimedia Commons

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.

Cumulonimbus: Vertical growth ain't no joke.
Cumulonimbus: Vertical growth ain't no joke.Courtesy Simon Eugster, Wikimedia Commons

Cloudy Answers
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.

Noctilucent: "Why you gotta be all up in my grill with your carbon, yo?"
Noctilucent: "Why you gotta be all up in my grill with your carbon, yo?"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…

Contrails: Not only do they give off greenhouse gases, jets mess with the clouds. Jerks.
Contrails: Not only do they give off greenhouse gases, jets mess with the clouds. Jerks.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.

Jul
05
2010

Future friend robot: If roboticists have their way, in the future something like this could be your best friend.
Future friend robot: If roboticists have their way, in the future something like this could be your best friend.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?

SOURCE
NY Time article by Amy Harmon

Jun
07
2010

Why does this baby appear so well-adjusted?: Difficult to say.
Why does this baby appear so well-adjusted?: Difficult to say.Courtesy Manda
A 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?

Apr
08
2010

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
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There is an interesting take on the scope of laughter from Robert Mankoff.
Unbridled Laughter: we should all be so lucky to feel this each day
Unbridled Laughter: we should all be so lucky to feel this each dayCourtesy 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!