“…Welcome back, class. Please hand in your essays on the scientific fundamentals of phosphorus-driven eutrophication in the Gulf of Mexico, and note that our exam covering chapter eight, the Biogeochemistry of Acid Mine Drainage, will take place next Tuesday. Today we will be covering fluid bed catalytic oxidation, hazardous waste landfill leachates, and NIMBY. But, first, let’s take attendance: Bueller?... Bueller?... Bueller??”
Say what? “Nimby?” Girl, puh-lease! He just made that up… didn’t he??
It wasn’t long into my undergraduate stint as an Environmental Science major that I came across the word, “nimby.” Actually, it’s not a word at all. It’s an acronym, N.I.M.B.Y., standing for “Not In My BackYard,” that captures an important public attitude that affects environmental policymaking.
NIMBY explains many people’s attitude towards environmental policies, capturing sentiments like,
“That’s such a cool and important idea! As long as it’s not actually happening in my community, that is.”
“Whatever. I don’t care so long as I don’t have to see it everyday.”
Courtesy The Voice of Eye
Think About It
Do you like having your trash removed from your home? Most everyone does. But, would you like having a landfill in your backyard? Almost nobody does. This is the classic example of NIMBY. Nearly everyone likes having their trash collected from their property and transported out of sight and smell, yet someone, somewhere has to live beside a mountain of trash. As long as we’re not the ones living across the street from the landfill, most of us are satisfied with this method of garbage disposal. The same idea goes for wastewater treatment facilities as well.
Another classic example is nuclear power. Some people support nuclear power as an inexpensive and “clean” alternative to fossil fuels like oil and natural gas. However, the construction, maintenance, and decommissioning of a nuclear power plant poses risks and creates radioactive waste. Whether or not you think the risks and waste production are acceptable consequences depends largely on your proximity to the plant and/or ultimate disposal site for the nuclear waste.
A recent example of NIMBY is occurring in California this summer as covered in Green, a New York Times blog. In a valley near Santa Clara, Martifer Renewables canceled their plan to build a hybrid solar power plant. Set on 640 acres of agricultural land, the plant was supposed to produce electricity by solar power during the day and biomass burning by night. How sweet is that?? A 24-hour source of renewable energy! The California utility PG&E thought it was a great idea too and signed a 20-year power purchase agreement for 106.8 megawatts, which became part of their energy portfolio. PG&E must obtain 20% of its electricity from renewable resources by December of this year and another 13% (for 33% total) by 2020, as mandated by California state energy goals. Now that the project is canceled, PG&E will have to look elsewhere for sources of renewable electricity or risk missing their mandated targets.
Regarding the canceled project, Martifer executive, Miguel Lobo, wrote in a June 17th letter that,
“We were not able at this time to resolve some of our issues regarding project economics and biomass supply amongst other things.”
What Lobo was likely referring to are the complaints of local residents and regulators who contested several aspects of the project. Chief amongst the complaints was the around-the-clock operation made possible by burning biomass. What exactly were they so excited about? Noise, waste, and air pollution – all realities of energy production, yet things we’d rather not experience ourselves. In short, NIMBY.
Alright, so what?
Now that I’ve opened your eyes to the existence of NIMBY, you might be wondering how it influences environmental policymaking. The easiest answer is that environmental policymakers seek to find a balance between the conflicting desires for new technology like this power plant and local opposition and the NIMBY attitude. Often both sides make compromises and projects move forward on a slightly different path than previously proposed. However, as in the California case of Martifer Renewables, occasionally a project is completely scrapped. Other times, the project proceeds as originally planned. Which of the outcomes occurs depends largely on the organization and influence of the local opposition. In turn, this often raises issues of environmental or eco-justice.
Clearly our modern society cannot exist without landfills or wastewater treatment facilities as smelly and unsightly as they may be. Whether or not nuclear or other renewable energy power plants are equally necessary today is debatable, but it’s not hard to imagine a future in which they will be. If no one agreed to have these facilities in their community, life as we know it would be very different. This begs the question: how do you think policymakers should balance the needs of society at large against the NIMBY attitude of locals?
What's better than learning something new? How about learning something new from a cartoon!
Cartoonist Darryl Cunningham writes online comics about science topics, amongst other things. He recently completed a sequence about MMR, autism, and employing a scientific world view. Even if you've read all facts inside, it's still interesting to see it all spelled out in a graphic format.
There are actually quite a few fantastic comic resources out there for understanding science. I think that for a lot of people the added visual stimulus really helps (myself included). I'm a big fan of Two-Fisted Science, which is an anthology of stories of great moments in modern physics. Subjects include Richard Feynman, Albert Einstein, and Neils Bohr. I had a chance to meet illustrator Steve Lieber (one of the authors of Two-Fisted Science) this weekend at Charlotte's Heroes Con. During our conversation he recommended the works of Jay Hosler, himself an apiologist (bee scientist). Hosler's two books, Clan Apis and The Sandwalk Adventures both deal with topics in biology. Clan Apis is all about the lifecycle of a honey bee while The Sandwalk Adventures involves Charles Darwin's conversations with his own eyebrow mites in an effort to convince them that he is not God and that evolution is true.
A few weeks ago, I assumed that some of our readers were bored with the same ol’ climate change arguments. I know you know what I’m talking about: the Cuddly-Animals-are-Dying and the Catastrophic-Disasters-Will-End-the-Human-Race arguments come to mind first. Now, I’m not saying there isn’t some merit to these frames, but c’mon! Can’t we get a little variety?
Courtesy University of Minnesota
Lucky for you, University of Minnesota professor and Institute on the Environment fellow Stephen Polasky thinks creatively. In April, he gave a presentation on how adopting inclusive wealth could ultimately reduce climate change and its effects. And since virtually everybody likes money, I’m going to go out on a limb and bet you want to know more about the ca-ching!$
Here’s the skinny:
Economists say that just about everything has a monetary value, and how much something is worth plays largely into the decisions politicians make. Scientists like Polasky are increasingly saying that these traditional accounting methods do a poor job assessing value to natural resources, and these mistakes are leading us to make irrational choices. As an alternative, Polasky suggests adopting inclusive wealth theory.
Courtesy happyeclaire (Flickr)
Ready for the good stuff??
Economists and scientists both agree that the environment has worth, called natural capital, but they disagree on how much. In fact, not only do economists and scientists disagree with each other, but they disagree amongst themselves! To be fair, determining something’s worth can be extremely difficult. Because there are already economic markets for some natural resources like trees (i.e. lumber) and metals (i.e. gold), it’s easier to assess their value. Most ecosystem services, however, like the flood control provided by wetlands, are more difficult to put a dollar value on.
Inclusive wealth theory says that our decisions should be made on economic assessments that include true representations of the value of natural resources (difficult as that may be).
Politicians make important decisions regarding environmental policies, including actions that affect climate change. When politicians are choosing between multiple policy options, they are conducting policy analysis. One criterion that politicians pretty much always use is a cost-benefit ratio, or cost efficiency. In order to do that, politicians must determine the value of each policy option and weight the outcome against the rest. (It might sound complicated, but you do this same process informally everyday when you make decisions regarding what to eat for breakfast and whether to walk or ride your bike to school/work.)
Courtesy Ben Cody
Polasky and other like-minded individuals argue that under traditional accounting methods, politicians’ cost-benefit ratios are distorted – they are not accurately representing the true worth of the environment. Furthermore, as a result, we’re making some pretty big, bad decisions. According to Polasky, the solution is simple in theory, but difficult in practice: adopt inclusive wealth theory to more accurately measure environmental worth. If we increase the value of the environment in our analysis, the cost-benefit ratios will change and perhaps favor decisions that are more environmentally friendly. That is, under inclusive wealth, we might finally see how important it is to take climate change-reducing actions such as reducing our fossil fuel consumption, protecting forests from logging, and stopping eating so much meat… or not.
What do you think?
How much $$ is the environment worth to you? What about individual ecosystem services like pollination by bees or decomposition of waste by microbes?
Are politicians doing an accurate job of assessing the value of natural capital?
Post your comments below!
Courtesy Mark RyanLast year's first ever geology-based art show at the Two Wall Gallery in Vashon, Washington was so successful, there's now a second one in the making. Greg Wessel, the geologist-artist behind Geo sapiens I, has put out a call for submissions for Geo sapiens II to be held this coming September at the same location. Here's some info from Wessel's recent email announcement:
“This is an announcement for a call for entries for our follow-on show, Geo sapiens II, to be shown September, 2010. Works in all media are invited from earth/space scientists and earth/space science students of all flavors, including such persons as geophysicists, geochemists, astronomers, oceanographers, spelunkers, environmental scientists, and of course all types of geologists, retired, employed, unemployed, or previously employed, as well as mining engineers, petroleum engineers, and geological engineers. If you’ve got a geoscience background of any type, you qualify. Artworks can incorporate geologic principles, picture geologic features or landscapes, be made of earth materials, or represent abstractly earth or space issues or topics. You be the judge.”
Last year's show featured entries from nearly 50 geoscientists and students from across the US, Canada, the UK, France, Australia, New Zealand, Slovenia, and Okinawa. The artwork ranged from painting, etching, sculpture, and fiber art, to photography, block printing, pencil drawings, stained glass and stone mosaics.
Participants in last year's show can enter Geo sapiens II as long as it's something new. I know I'll be entering again this year. If any other geo-artists out there would like to enter something as well, contact co-curator Greg Wessel at TwoWallGallery@aol.com or call 206-250-2222 and he'll send a prospectus your way. Entries are accepted until July 15, 2010.
Physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson said,
"If you're scientifically literate, the world looks very different to you. And that understanding empowers you."
(You can hear Mr. Tyson "sing" this line in the Symphony of Science/Poetry of Reality video below.)
Courtesy United Nations Development Programme
I've been thinking about that idea a lot today after hearing two stories:
The cause of the Haitian earthquake is clear--100% explainable without having to invoke pacts with the Devil or martyr's ghosts. Same in Iran -- geologic activity in the area will continue whether or not women are veiled and chaste.
The solution is not "to take refuge in religion." The wrangling over unverifiable, supernatural causes for things diverts very needed resources and attention from real world solutions to very urgent problems.
The solution is to take refuge in science. Michael Shermer (yup, he "sings") says,
"Science is the best tool ever devised for understanding how the world works."
The Earth hasn't changed. People have. We're seeing quake activity with big consequences because there are more of us than ever before, many, many of us live in developing countries where large populations live in dense communities with lax building codes, and communications technology means that we know what has happened, not because we're paying a geological price for not living our lives correctly.
So what do we do? We innovate. We devise new and better monitoring and warning systems. We develop building techniques that are both locally appropriate and safer in the event of a quake. We teach people how to protect themselves in an emergency and how to react afterwards.
Richard Dawkins (my current nerd crush; you can watch him "sing" in the video, too.) said,
"Science replaces private prejudice with publicly verifiable evidence."
How can you not get behind an idea like that?
Called Masdar, the new city will retain time-tested traits of early Arab desert architecture, keeping streets narrow and maximizing the amount of shade created from closely built building walls. Wind towers will help move air through the streets. But most of the energy needs of the planned city of 50,000 will come from the sun. At least that’s the plan.
Some of the ideas being tossed around include using a circle of giant mirrors to focus the sun’s ray’s onto a tower in the center of the city – kind of like those parabolic cookers you see advertised on television but on a much larger scale. The light and heat will be converted and controlled to supply necessary power to drive the city’s energy needs. Other plans stem from lunar colonization ideas, such as covering surfaces with thin layered, highly reflective materials to deflect excessive desert heat.
The planners hope to make Masdar primarily a walking city. They’re keeping it compact and easily accessible by foot. Plus, gasoline-powered vehicles will be banned. But below street level, computer-driven podcars called Personal Rapid Transit will use solar-powered magnets to move people around town.
A huge solar farm – the largest in the Middle East – has already been built to supply power for construction of the new city, and to offset the necessary use of carbon-based fuel to build it. Construction costs for Masdar which will include 1000 business and a university are being covered by Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the ruler of Abu Dhabi.
Pardon the pun, but I think it all sounds so cool.
Courtesy Mark RyanSidney Perkowitz is not a happy camper, or rather I should say not a happy moviegoer. The American physicist has been taking Hollywood to task for all the bad science portrayed in the movies. He recently told a meeting of American scientists that movies should be allowed to contain only one major scientific flaw. This isn’t new territory for Perkowitz, who teaches physics at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. He published a book titled Hollywood Science in 2007, and has done numerous appearances, and written several articles on the subject.
One of the recent films Perkowitz complains about is Deep Blue Sea where careless scientists meddle with the brains of sharks that become super-smart and wreak havoc on the underwater laboratory. Great science? Not on your life, according to the crabby Professor Perkowitz. He says tests like those shown in the film where proteins are extracted directly from the super-sized shark brains would actually take place in large vats in a controlled laboratory setting. Think of the excitement watching that process! But as far as I’m concerned Samuel L. Jackson's inspiring rah-rah speech in the middle of the film makes any and all the bad science totally worth any money spent to see the movie.
But what’s the big deal, really? There’s always been a demand for suspension of disbelief in the movies especially in the oxymoronic genre of science fiction. Look at Georges Melies’ fantastical A Trip to the Moon (1902). Based on the written works of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, most of the film lacks any scientific truth. Oh, sure it has some prophetic parallels to the actual 60’s Apollo missions. A NASA-like organization of space scientists and technicians is shown launching a manned capsule in an actual “moon shot”. Once there the astronauts (in top hats!) do witness Earthrise from the lunar surface. And when they return to Earth, they’re picked up in the ocean by a ship. But the rest of the classic film is crazy, and has more scientific holes than the Moon has craters. But, again, so what?
My whole childhood was spent absorbing bad science in movies. But I don’t think it was harmful. If anything it fired my interest in science, and gave me a sense of curiosity and wonderment of the natural world. In 1960’s Dinosaurus!, a caveman, Tyrannosaurus rex, and Brontosaurus (its very name a scientific faux pas) are all dredged up frozen from bottom of the Caribbean Sea, all in one tight little group, despite the fact they all lived millions and millions of years apart in time from each other. Did I care? Naw. I doubt anybody did back then. It was just a blast watching them terrorize the island.
The Time Machine (1960) was another favorite that came out the same year. Using a modified Everglades airboat, Rod Taylor travels through time to wage a personal war against the underground Warlocks and save the grazing Eloi. Was it believable? It was for me. I thought it had some real interesting hypotheses. But was it good science? Not really. Was it in any way prophetic? Not yet, but I guess time will tell.
Perkowitz isn’t bother by a little inaccurate science in a movie, but he wants to put a limit on it. To this end, Perkowitz serves as a member of the Science and Entertainment Exchange, an organization bent on aligning movie producers with competent science advisors in hopes of improving the portrayal of scientists (less nerdiness, fewer pipes and eyeglasses, more witty banter) and scientific ideas in their motion pictures. Perkowitz thinks it will be good for everyone involved.
"The Core did not make money because people understood the science was so out to lunch," he said.
If you saw the 2003 movie, I think you’ll agree bad science was the least of The Core’s problems. The real problem was someone gave the script a green light in the first place. Perkowitz reasoning doesn't explain why an error-riddled movie like The Day After Tomorrow, and a ton of similar science clunkers out there bring in money. Of course, movies in no way have a corner on the market for bad science. Television is full of it, too (pun intended). On the TV series Star Trek, chief engineer Mr. Scott was always saying he couldn't defy the laws of physics whenever Captain Kirk insisted they power-up to Warp 9. And it looks like Scotty was right, as evidenced in a recent post by JGordon. I admit, however, I do enjoy the current show, Bones. Some of the lab equipment used may be questionable and before its time, but the lead character is a woman of pure science. A humorless woman at that, but she does adhere to the scientific method. And she does smile sometimes.
So what do you think? Do you agree with Professor Perkowitz, that bad science needs to be reined in, or do you think the whole purpose of Hollywood motion pictures is merely to entertain our socks off, no matter how mangled the facts? Are there movies you’ve seen where the science portrayed made you wince? Or made you think? Or yell at the screen? Let us know.
Courtesy Da Vinci
When attempting to communicate the world of science, visualization often works better than words. Illustrations are a quick and effective means for communicating science, engineering and technology to an often scientifically challenged population.
The National Science Foundation and the journal, Science, created the International Science & Engineering Visualization Challenge to encourage the continued growth toward this journalistic goal.
Judges appointed by the National Science Foundation and the journal Science will select winners in each of five categories: photographs, illustrations, informational graphics, interactive media and non-interactive media. NSF.gov
This link will take you to the 2004-2009 International Science & Engineering Visualization Challenge winners. I am also embedding a You Tube video of past competitions below.
Courtesy Ferran Publicity, no matter how you get it, is still publicity, right? Whether it’s by making your kid hide in the attic while telling police he’s actually in a weather balloon careening toward earth, or by paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to own a tiny fragment of history, you still get fame. At least that’s what Southwestern Baptists Theological Seminary (SBTS) and Azusa Pacific University (APU) were hoping when they bought 3 and 5 fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls, respectively. Isn’t that illegal?! That’s what I was asking myself when I read the article detailing this transaction. Apparently the purchase was entirely legal because the institutions bought the scroll fragments from a private collector; a family who, in the 1960’s, legally acquired some fragments and stored them in a bank vault (I wonder if bank vaults are humidity-controlled). They put some pieces up for sale whenever they feel like they need a little extra cash, I guess. Like you do with any culturally, historically, archaeologically, and religiously significant artifacts you have lying around. And it’s precisely this importance that seduced the aforementioned institutions into buying them- they assumed that by simply possessing little Dead Sea Scroll fragments, their credibility and academic prestige would skyrocket.
Perhaps this is true. Maybe by having these very important pieces of history will attract more scholars or research-oriented professors who, in turn, write a lot of grants and bring in more money for the university (not to mention the money they’ll rake in from ticket sales when they put the fragments on display, which APU intends to do). But from a student’s perspective, if a university has a fragment of the Dead Sea Scrolls, as cool as they are, it probably won’t influence my decision about whether or not to attend. A university’s priority should be on teaching their students, and I’m not sure that spending hundreds of thousands of dollars (maybe even millions) on bragging rights is the best way to go about it. I know! SBTS and APU could use the money they spent purchasing tiny, fragile artifacts to fund a scholarship that allows students to study biblical archaeology abroad. That kind of publicity is what can put your university on the map in a sustainable way. Of course, you could just tell your students to pretend they went abroad and use the money to buy a bunch of weather balloons… just in case you need them for future publicity.
Courtesy Poco a pocoHave you ever played that little mental game where you pretend that you won the lottery a few dozen times, or that your eleven billionaire uncles all died in a Thunderdome-style cage match, and left all their money to you? How you get the money isn’t that important in the game. That you have more money than you could possibly know what to do with is a given, and your feeble attempts at finding something to do with it is the game. New robot servants every day, all of which will be forced to tear each other to scraps each evening. Stradivari-smoked barbeque every weekend. A private mountain with guard dragons. A solid gold ocean. That sort of thing.
It’s a fun game, especially if you’re one of the elite of the United Arab Emirates, because then the game is pretty much real. I don’t think anyone has made his own solid gold ocean yet, but, at least when it comes to architecture, pretty much everything else is fair game. The UAE, see, is a federation of very small political territories on the Arabian Peninsula, and thanks to oil and some favorable trade-laws (or lack of them?) some people there have lots and lots and lots of money. And that money goes into things like building fake islands shaped like the world and palm trees large enough for hundreds of thousands of people to live on, or hotels shaped like thousand-foot-tall sailboats.
Supposedly there has been some sort of global economic issue recently (I don’t really read the news, seeing as how it takes time away from my fancy rat hobby), and that has put the brakes on a few of the UAE’s more shark-jumping projects… but not before they finished building the tallest freakin’ building in the world, the Burj Dubai! Today was the building’s grand opening, and it turns out that it’s super tall. Like, two Sears Towers tall. Like, half a mile tall. Like, really, very tall. Like, 2,717 feet tall.
When dealing with something that tall, sciency things are unavoidable. A lot of it is physics and engineering, and therefore the details are beyond me. Seriously, it took all I’ve got to wrote “details” instead of “deets,” so the deets of what it takes to erect something that tall, and keep it erected are a little more than I can reasonably be expected to reproduce. But consider the following: temperatures in Dubai, the emirate the Burj Dubai building is in, can reach 122 degrees, and concrete that cures in the heat isn’t as strong as concrete that cures in cooler temperatures, so the concrete had to be mixed at night, or with ice; the temperature at the top of the structure is 11 degrees cooler than at the base (or as much as 20 degrees cooler, according to this article); heat from the sun can cause one side of the building to expand more than the other, making the top of the building lean 3 feet in one direction; the structure had to be designed to cope with high winds, and can sway up to 6 feet at the top; the structure will use about 250,000 gallons of water a day (and, because we’re sort of in the desert here, it’ll be desalinated ocean water); captured condensation on the building’s exterior is expected to supply about 3500 gallons of water a year, to be used to help irrigate the building’s landscaping; to cool the building, it will need cooling facilities “equivalent to 10,000 tons of melting ice”; the foundations needed to keep the 2,717-foot structure up are 150 feet deep; the building has already sunk an additional 2.5 inches into the ground; and… everything else. How bizarre. If the building every catches fire, the 25,000 people who could be in it at any one time won’t necessarily have to run down half a mile of steps—supposedly there are pressurized, air-conditioned rooms throughout the building where people can “huddle to await rescue.” Huddling in a hopefully fireproof room a thousand feet up a burning building sounds awesome.
Anyway, look into it, Buzzketeers. Whatever your science preferences are, the Burj Dubai probably has something for you. (Including social sciences—you don’t building the tallest man-made structure in the history of the world without involving lots of people. You astrophysicists might be out of luck, though.)