Stories tagged Forces of Nature

Jul
13
2012

Evolution timeline from 1882: This caricature of Darwin's theory appeared in the 1882 Punch Almanac. The recent evolution timeline created by Kyrk and Sezen is a bit of an improvement.
Evolution timeline from 1882: This caricature of Darwin's theory appeared in the 1882 Punch Almanac. The recent evolution timeline created by Kyrk and Sezen is a bit of an improvement.Courtesy Public domain via Wikipedia
This cool evolution timeline is really fascinating and fun to mess around with. I'm guessing Charles Darwin would agree it's a vast improvement over the one that appeared in Punch Almanac in1882 when he was still alive (see image at right). This new one was created by John Kyrk, a biology-trained artist in San Francisco in collaboration with Dr. Uzay Sezen, a plant biologist from the University of Georgia. The timeline is available in several languages and would be very useful in a classroom setting when studying evolution and paleontology.

The site is interactive and follows the evolution of our universe from the Big Bang to the present. You start it by clicking and sliding the red pyramid on the right. As you scroll across the timeline, various events in the history of the Universe, Solar System and ultimately, the Earth show up on the screen. All along, links also appear that either explain concepts or show examples of them. In the upper left hand corner is a menu linking you to several corollary Flash animations by Kyrk explaining cell biology and how RNA, DNA, cells, water, and other basic elements of life (including viruses) operate. Kyrk thinks animated illustrations are very useful in teaching and remembering ideas and concepts.

All the phases of Earth’s formation and development are covered in the evolution timeline, including the Late Heavy Bombardment, Snowball Earth, Cambrian Explosion, stromatolites, photosynthesis and iron formation. Once life begins to rise up, your computer screen will run amok with Earth’s diverse species populations from the one-celled animals, trilobites and fish to amphibians, reptiles, dinosaurs and mammals – the whole shooting match. All the major extinction events are shown, too.

The site also contains a link to this YouTube video version of someone else working the timeline so you can just sit back and watch how it happens, But I recommend working the interactive page yourself. A lot more happens and is available than the video allows you to see. Note that you’ll need Flash for it to run on your computer.

I wonder how Darwin would have reacted if he were able to see his theory illustrated in this way?

SOURCES
Evolution Timeline

Feb
22
2012

The title is a quote by electronic music composer Edgard Varèse. It is a quote that I recently took to heart as a composer myself. Unfortunately, I am typically separated from the science field, as I focus on my musical endeavors. In an effort to rectify this, I have recently begun a series of audiovisual works that marry the two fields. This blog seems like the perfect environment to showcase my work to date.

See video

The piece I am advocating for here is called Ferrous, which showcases the unique properties of ferrofluid. This liquid contains microscopic magnetic particles, which will react to any external magnetic field. By introducing a magnet, we can see the fluid take the shape of the magnetic field lines emanating from that magnet. In this piece, all of the magnets are manipulated below the ferrofluid, but their shape and movement remains clear as the liquid mimics them. I used four different magnets of varying shapes and strengths to showcase the liquid’s wide range of visual possibilities. The visuals are further enhanced by the brilliant gold colors that reflect off of the ferrofluid-stained aluminum foil container.

All of the audio is derived from two sources that embody the materials used in the piece. One was sloshing liquid, which represents the fluid aspects of ferrofluid; the other was metal banging on metal, which represents the solid aspects (i.e. when the magnets are interacting with the iron in the ferrofluid). These sounds are then filtered in many different ways (i.e. delay, pitch shift, distortion, time expansion and compression, etc.) to create the final score. I gave each magnet their own musical character by designating particular filters for each one. For example, the bar magnets in the middle of the piece use a lot of quick pitch shifting to underscore the variety of visual effects they can create, while the round magnet at the end makes great use of delay as a driving rhythmic force, as well as distortion to underscore its sheer magnetic power.

Working on this project has been an amazing experience for me so far. Science is just full of so much inherent beauty and I already have a few ideas for other videos like this in the near future. I would love to hear your responses to this video and any thoughts for this project going forward. But for now, enjoy!

Feb
19
2012

The Blue Heron: the Large Lakes Observatory's research vessel is owned by the University of Minnesota-Duluth.
The Blue Heron: the Large Lakes Observatory's research vessel is owned by the University of Minnesota-Duluth.Courtesy Mark Ryan
Last October, I attended the Geological Society of America’s annual meeting held here in Minneapolis. The convention presented plenty of opportunities to hear the latest ideas in geology, paleontology, and planetary science but the highlight for me was being able to join a GSA field trip on Lake Superior aboard the research vessel, the Blue Heron.

Blue Heron interior: Mid-deck area includes monitoring station, right, and one of two dry labs, background left, serving as a snack table during our trip.
Blue Heron interior: Mid-deck area includes monitoring station, right, and one of two dry labs, background left, serving as a snack table during our trip.Courtesy Mark Ryan
The 86-foot vessel is owned by the University of Minnesota-Duluth (UMD) and operated by the Large Lakes Observatory (LLO), an organization created in 1994 for investigating the geochemical and geophysical properties of large lakes, and their global impact. To accomplish this research, the LLO required a worthy vessel for limnological research, and the Blue Heron was purchased just three years later.

The vessel docks at the Corps of Engineers Vessel Yard on Park Point (aka Minnesota Point), a natural sand bar separating Duluth’s harbor basin from Lake Superior. The ten-mile spit was created by the lake’s wave action on material deposited by the St. Louis river, and is supposedly the largest freshwater sand bar in the world. Field trip leaders Doug Ricketts, the marine superintendent at LLO, and Charlie Matsch, professor emeritus of geology at UMD, greeted arriving participants and divided us into two groups. While one group spent the morning on Lake Superior, the other visited geological highlights in the Duluth area with professor Matsch. In the afternoon the groups switched places.

I joined the morning shift on the lake with a dozen geologists made up of GSA attendees from Minnesota, Wisconsin, and City University of New York. Besides Doug Ricketts and the ship’s five crew members, regents professor Tom Johnson, and the director of the LLO, professor Steve Colman, were also on hand to help demonstrate and explain the Blue Heron’s research capabilities.Lakebound through the harbor: As we head toward Lake Superior, regents professor Tom Johnson, left, and  director of the LLO, professor Steve Colman, discuss the morning agenda with one of the field trip passengers. The yellow tow fish used for profiling the lake bottom sets on the deck in the background.
Lakebound through the harbor: As we head toward Lake Superior, regents professor Tom Johnson, left, and director of the LLO, professor Steve Colman, discuss the morning agenda with one of the field trip passengers. The yellow tow fish used for profiling the lake bottom sets on the deck in the background.Courtesy Mark Ryan

Safety first: Blue Heron chief mate, John Simenson, goes over some of the vessel's safety rules.
Safety first: Blue Heron chief mate, John Simenson, goes over some of the vessel's safety rules.Courtesy Mark Ryan
We shoved off right on schedule, heading across the harbor toward the Superior entrance on the Wisconsin end of the sand bar. The crew spent this time going over the ship’s safety rules - how to descend ladders, which alarms meant what, how to communicate with the bridge - that sort of thing. We then made a quick tour of the facilities. The Blue Heron is equipped with a wet lab on the open deck and two dry labs inside, and all sorts of data gathering equipment for geophysical, geochemical, and biological sampling. These include multibeam sonar for profiling the lake bottom and sub-bottom, several coring instruments for collecting sediment samples, and water samplers able to collect at various depth levels in the water column while also measuring such things as temperature, depth, pH levels, and conductivity. There’s gear for tracking lake currents, and plankton nets and a trawl for gathering biological data. Inside, both above and below deck, computers record, display and analyze the gathered data. Many of the off-ship instruments can be monitored and controlled on-board from computer consoles.

Out on the big lake: Lake Superior is the deepest and largest of the Great Lakes, and contains ten percent of the world's fresh surface water.
Out on the big lake: Lake Superior is the deepest and largest of the Great Lakes, and contains ten percent of the world's fresh surface water.Courtesy Mark Ryan
The R/V Blue Heron is outfitted to carry five crew members and six researchers and can stay on the lake, around the clock, for 21 days between port calls. It’s used mainly on Lake Superior, the largest and least studied of the Great Lakes. Shipboard amenities are sparse (there’s no television or DVD) but include eleven bunks, a full galley for food preparation, dining table, shower, and of course, the "head", or as you landlubbers like to call it, the toilet. Internet service is sometimes available when the vessel is near shore.

Yellow fish deployed: The EdgeTech CHIRP/sidescan sonar is submerged and towed behind the Blue Heron for gathering bottom data.
Yellow fish deployed: The EdgeTech CHIRP/sidescan sonar is submerged and towed behind the Blue Heron for gathering bottom data.Courtesy Mark Ryan
Upon entering Lake Superior, the crew set to work demonstrating some of the vessel’s science gear, which is pretty much the same kind of instrumentation used in oceanographic research. Just beyond the Superior entrance, the EchoTech CHIRP/sidescan sonar tow fish was lowered from the Blue Heron’s stern. This bright yellow instrument is towed underwater behind the vessel as it makes several passes over the lake bed, and able to gather hydrographic and bathymetric data. One function is to send out an intermittent, low frequency “chirp” pulse that can penetrate the sub-bottom and record changes in its geophysical properties. The sonar data is processed using on-deck computers.The first demonstration was a scan of the underwater channel of the Nemadji River, a Wisconsin tributary to the lake. The mouth of the Nemadji has been drowned by a process called post-glacial rebound or more scientifically, differential isostatic rebound. During the last ice age, a mile thick sheet of ice covered the region and placed enormous pressure on the earth’s crust, depressing it downward. As the glaciers retreated, that enormous weight was gradually removed, and the lake basin began to rebound (a process still going on today). But the northern and eastern ends of Lake Superior basin are rebounding at a faster rate, tilting the water southward and to the west and subsequently flooding those areas of the shoreline.

CHIRP/sidescan sonar monitors: Left display shows a sidescan view of the bottom.  Right monitor reveals CHIRP sub-bottom profile of drowned channel of the Nemadji river.
CHIRP/sidescan sonar monitors: Left display shows a sidescan view of the bottom. Right monitor reveals CHIRP sub-bottom profile of drowned channel of the Nemadji river.Courtesy Mark Ryan
As the submerged tow fish was doing its stuff, we all gathered at a couple workstations in the lower deck dry lab to watch as images appeared on the computer screens. In one, you could plainly see the distinct profile of the Nemadji’s drowned riverbanks. Lower deck dry lab: Marine superintendent Doug Ricketts explains the R/V Blue Heron's data gathering capabilities to field trip participants.
Lower deck dry lab: Marine superintendent Doug Ricketts explains the R/V Blue Heron's data gathering capabilities to field trip participants.Courtesy Mark Ryan
The other monitor displayed bathymetric information being picked up by the duel frequency sidescan sonar. Printouts of the lakebed topography, created from a mosaic of stitched-together scans, were laid out on a worktable with several charts and maps.

Yellow tow fish retrieval: Blue Heron marine technician Jason Agnich (left) and seaman Peter Norick haul in the EdgeTech sidescan sonar tow fish.
Yellow tow fish retrieval: Blue Heron marine technician Jason Agnich (left) and seaman Peter Norick haul in the EdgeTech sidescan sonar tow fish.Courtesy Mark Ryan
For the next demonstrations, the Blue Heron moved out several miles onto the big lake. We’d all been warned of the lake’s fickle weather, and told to bring proper attire, just in case. Having been raised in Duluth, I was well acquainted with Superior’s moodiness, especially in autumn, so I brought along rain gear, a jacket, and an extra sweatshirt, expecting the worst. But I was most comfortable in jeans and a t-shirt. Cloud cover was sporadic, and while the water temperature was only around 49 degrees, the air temperature hovered in the mid to upper 70s during the entire excursion. We couldn’t have hoped for a nicer day; a perfect Duluth day, as we used to call them.

While some of the group watched the crew prepare for the next presentation, others enjoyed lunch (sandwich, chips, fruit and a cookie) at the galley dining table. During my lunch break Tom Johnson told me the story of how the university came to own the research vessel. In her previous life, the Blue Heron was known as the Fairtry a commercial fishing trawler that fished the Grand Banks in the northwest Atlantic (like the Andrea Gail in The Perfect Storm). UMD purchased it in 1997 and Tom sailed it from Portland, Maine, through the St. Lawrence Seaway and across the Great Lakes to Duluth. Despite some minor engine problems at the start, he said it was a fantastic two-and-a-half week trip. Over the next winter, the Fairtry was converted into a limnological research vessel and re-christened the Blue Heron.

Water sampling carousel: GSA field trip participants listen as LLO's Doug Ricketts, center, goes over some of the geophysical and geochemical data gathered by the Blue Heron's water sampling carousel.
Water sampling carousel: GSA field trip participants listen as LLO's Doug Ricketts, center, goes over some of the geophysical and geochemical data gathered by the Blue Heron's water sampling carousel.Courtesy Mark Ryan
Meanwhile, out on the back deck, the crew was ready to launch the next instrument, a carousel of canisters called Niskin bottles used for sampling the water column. Topside control: Marine tech Jason monitors the submerged water sampling carousel, which can be controlled to collect water samples at different levels, as well as additional water quality data.
Topside control: Marine tech Jason monitors the submerged water sampling carousel, which can be controlled to collect water samples at different levels, as well as additional water quality data.Courtesy Mark Ryan
This device is lowered into the lake and controlled remotely from the deck, and can collect samples at various depths into any one of its dozen canisters. It can also measure temperature, conductivity, pH balance, transparency, dissolved oxygen levels and other tests. After deployment, marine technician, Jason Agnich, sat at a computer workstation just inside the hatch, and easily controlled the carousel with a joystick while monitoring its progress on a couple electronic displays.

Gravity corer: Marine technician Jason Agnich helps launch the gravity corer, retrieves the sample, and lays it out on the wet lab workbench for study.
Gravity corer: Marine technician Jason Agnich helps launch the gravity corer, retrieves the sample, and lays it out on the wet lab workbench for study.Courtesy Mark Ryan
We moved a little farther down lake where two coring instruments, a spider-framed multi-corer, and an arrow-like gravity corer were put into action. The first can collect several shallow core samples by lowering it by winch to the lakebed, while the latter is dropped like a giant dart deep into the sub-bottom sediment for one large core.

Sediment sample examination: Tom Johnson, left, and Steve Colman examine one of the sediment samples collected by the Blue Heron's multi-corer from the bottom of Lake Superior.
Sediment sample examination: Tom Johnson, left, and Steve Colman examine one of the sediment samples collected by the Blue Heron's multi-corer from the bottom of Lake Superior.Courtesy Mark Ryan
After each was raised back to the surface, the collected core samples were removed from their tubing and laid out on the wet lab table for study. We all huddled around the workbench as each core was cut open with a knife so participants could take a closer look. The sediment cores were composed of a densely packed fine-grained mucky silt as brown as milk chocolate, and appeared more appropriate for a scatological study than a geological one, to me anyway. But that didn’t stop some of us from taking home a small plastic bag of it as a souvenir.

View of the Blue Heron's wet lab: Lake bottom sediment samples are examined on the workbench.
View of the Blue Heron's wet lab: Lake bottom sediment samples are examined on the workbench.Courtesy Mark Ryan
View from the Blue Heron: As the research vessel heads back to port, autumn colors brighten up Duluth's distant hillside.
View from the Blue Heron: As the research vessel heads back to port, autumn colors brighten up Duluth's distant hillside.Courtesy Mark Ryan
As we made our way back toward the harbor, I stood at the starboard rail and took in the beautiful autumn colors lighting up the lake’s distant North Shore. We were three, maybe four miles offshore but I was able to pick out my old stomping grounds in Duluth’s east end. The old neighborhood – like much of the city - was built up on terraces formed by past shoreline configurations of prehistoric Lake Superior. Duluth’s Skyline Parkway, a boulevard that skirts the hilltop across the length of the city was built on an old gravel beach line of Glacial Lake Duluth when the water surface was nearly five hundred feet above its present level. The bridge over the mouth of the Lester River was just barely discernible from where I stood but it was easy to spot the large swath of dark pine forest that encompassed Lester Park and Amity creek (the western branch of Lester river) where my friends and I used to hang out. It’s also where Charlie Matsch would guide our group later in the afternoon. He brought us there to examine the Deeps, my favorite old swimming hole carved out of the massive basalt flows that extruded from what’s now the center of Lake Superior during the Mid-continental rifting event that took place nearly a billion years ago.

Harbor bound: The Blue Heron heads back to port through the Duluth canal.
Harbor bound: The Blue Heron heads back to port through the Duluth canal.Courtesy Mark Ryan
We returned to port through the Duluth entrance, and as we entered the canal captain Mike King announced our arrival with a blast of the Blue Heron’s air horn. Duluth’s landmark Aerial-Lift Bridge, already raised for our return entry, responded in kind with a shrill loud blast of its own. Tourists lining the pier called out and waved as we passed the old lighthouse and rolled toward the harbor. We all waved back and I have to say it was kind of a thrill, for me anyway, after having participated in the same ritual, oh probably a hundred times in the past but always from the pier not from a vessel.

Return to harbor: The Blue Heron heads back to port after passing under Duluth's landmark Aerial-Lift Bridge.
Return to harbor: The Blue Heron heads back to port after passing under Duluth's landmark Aerial-Lift Bridge.Courtesy Mark Ryan
The Blue Heron swung in through the harbor, and soon we were back at port where we started at the Corps of Engineers Vessel Yard. Charlie Matsch was there to greet us and take for the second leg of the field trip.

Charlie took us first up the hillside to the rocky knob near the landmark memorial Enger Tower where he showed us some interesting exposures of gabbro, an intrusive rock common to the geological formation known as the Duluth Complex. Much of the bluffs west of downtown Duluth are composed of this dark, course-grained mafic rock. Now, I admit I enjoy a geological outcrop as much as the next guy (especially when a real geologist is explaining it), but it was the sweeping view from the hilltop that drew my attention. The Blue Heron: cuts through Duluth's harbor for another excursion on Lake Superior.
The Blue Heron: cuts through Duluth's harbor for another excursion on Lake Superior.Courtesy Mark Ryan
The lake and harbor and much of the St. Louis river bay stretched out below us in an array of vivid blues contrasting with the bright reds and golds of autumn. On one side of the harbor, bridges, railroads, and structures of industry jutted out on Rice's Point toward Wisconsin, paralleled on the other side by the slender ribbon of Park Point. As I took in this grand vista, a small, barely discernible bluish blur of movement caught my eye. There, cutting through the harbor, the Blue Heron headed southward toward the Superior entrance for another run on the great lake.

More photos on Flickr
More about Blue Heron
Lake Superior facts
Lake Superior video

Nov
21
2011

Phil Plait, astronomer, lecturer, and blogger at Bad Astonomy gives a humorous and informative talk about asteroid impacts both in the past and in the future. He touches on the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, and the 50 meter-wide asteroid that created Meteor Crater in the Arizona desert 50,000 years ago, and the rocky bolide that exploded with the force of 1000 atomic bombs above the Tunguska river region in Siberia in 1908. Each impacted with Earth, and lucky for us, they all took place safely in the past. But you know it’s bound to happen again. It’s not a question of if, but one of when. And when could be sooner than you think. Plait ratchets up his talk’s anxiety level with the information that an asteroid discovered in 2004 and known as Apophis is headed toward Earth. This thing isn’t anywhere as huge as the 6-mile wide space rock that ended the reign of the dinosaurs, but at over 250 meters across it could still do some serious damage.

In 2029, Apophis will pass so close to Earth it will come inside the orbit of some of our weather satellites. It won’t strike our planet at that time but if it manages to pass through a small kidney-shaped region in known as a gravitational keyhole, Earth’s pull would redirect Apophis orbit into one that would set it on a path of collision with us the next time it comes around on April 13, 2036. Sure the odds are slim everything will actually line up right for this to happen, but Plait sees it as an opportunity for us to learn how to deal with such events. We know impacts happened in the past, and we can assume they'll continue to happen in the future. Apophis is a good example of that. So it makes sense to start planning on how we can defend against such an event. Scientists from organization such as the B612 Foundation and NASA are already trying to raise public awareness of the dangers asteroids and other near Earth objects may pose to the future of our planet. And Plait explains some interesting counter offensives already being considered. It won't be an easy task but it's probably one that needs planning just in case. Besides, look at what could happen if we don't. It's a no-brainer.

MORE INFO
More about Apophis
Asteroid Watch website

Oct
05
2011

You are Cordially Invited

Publication Party, Public Reading, and Book Signing Event

for
FOOL ME TWICE: Fighting the Assault on Science in America
by
SHAWN LAWRENCE OTTO

Introduction by Don Shelby
Emcee Jim Lenfestey

"A gripping analysis of America's anti-science crisis."
Starred Kirkus Review
“In this incredible book, Otto explores the devaluation of science in America.”
Starred Publishers Weekly Review

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

Tuesday October 18, 2011 at 7PM
Target Performance Hall, Open Book
1011 Washington Avenue South, Minneapolis
(click here for directions and free parking)
This event is free and open to the public

sponsored by
the Loft Literary Center
the Science Museum of Minnesota

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

Beer, wine and light refreshments served
Books for sale at the event
Free book by drawing. To qualify: A) post about the event on Facebook B) tweet at the event with hashtag #FoolMeTwice and mention @ShawnOtto

May
12
2011

Mississippi River Levee in Baton Rouge, LA, taken May 11th 2011.: Panorama of the Mississippi River levee in Baton Rouge, LA near Louisiana State University, taken May 11th 2011.
Mississippi River Levee in Baton Rouge, LA, taken May 11th 2011.: Panorama of the Mississippi River levee in Baton Rouge, LA near Louisiana State University, taken May 11th 2011.Courtesy Azure Bevington
You might have heard about the terrible flooding that is occurring all along the Mighty Mississippi. As I write this I am sitting in Baton Rouge, Louisiana hoping the levees will hold. Normally the river in Baton Rouge is far below the tops of the levees. Flood stage, which is the water level at which the river would begin to flood surrounding areas without the levees acting as barriers, is 35 ft. Right now the water level is 42.8 ft and has risen 8 ft in just the last week. It is projected to crest at 47.5 ft and remain at that level for 8 to 10 days; this is higher than the previous record set in May 1927 of 47.28 ft. The tops of the levees that protect Baton Rouge are between 47 and 50 ft, they are currently sandbagging in areas less than 48 ft. Besides the possibility of overtopping there are also other problems that we need to look out for. When the river level remains high for an extended period of time the water can seep in and begin to saturate the soil, this can possibly weaken the levee structure. There is also the possibility of water going under the levee; this can result in sand boils, where the water bubbles up through the soil. It is very unlikely that this will happen, as the levees are strong and well constructed, but we need to be on the lookout for any problems.

Here in Baton Rouge we are much better off than many who live in communities within the Atchafalaya Basin, where the expected opening of the Morganza spillway could cause flooding of over 3 million acres (Click here to see a map of projected flooding in the basin) Many of these folks have already begun to sandbag their homes and to prepare to leave the area. The Morganza spillway is a large controlled gated structure that will divert water from the Mississippi River into the Atchafalaya Basin. The Atchafalaya Basin is a low lying cypress swamp that normally receives 30% of the flow of the Mississippi River through the Old River Control structure through the Atchafalaya River that winds its way through the swamp. This flood is projected to be larger than the 1973 flood and possibly even larger than the 1927 flood that devastated communities along the river, and brought about the passage of Flood Control Act of 1928. The magnitude of this year’s flood has already resulted in the opening of the Bonnet Carré spillway which diverts water into Lake Pontchartrain, this reduces the water levels as the River flows past New Orleans.

Stay tuned for updates on the flooding in Louisiana.

Have any of you been affected by the flood waters?

Mar
24
2011

Behind the wall: The wall protecting the bottom floor of the museum is made of two rows of cement barriers with dirt packed between them. Next door at District Energy, they're using sand. I wonder which will work better?
Behind the wall: The wall protecting the bottom floor of the museum is made of two rows of cement barriers with dirt packed between them. Next door at District Energy, they're using sand. I wonder which will work better?Courtesy JGordon
If you've been following Science Buzz (of course you have!) you know that St. Paul is gearing up for a flood!

It's still unclear as to how high the water will rise, but given all the snow we got this winter, the Science Museum is preparing for the worst. The worst is unlikely, but even not-quite-the-worst would be pretty bad, so the museum is building some defenses against the water.
A red tailed hawk keeps an eye on the proceedings: Which, frankly, is ridiculous. What do hawks know about flood management?
A red tailed hawk keeps an eye on the proceedings: Which, frankly, is ridiculous. What do hawks know about flood management?Courtesy JGordon
The hawk takes flight!: Good riddance. What were we even paying him for?
The hawk takes flight!: Good riddance. What were we even paying him for?Courtesy JGordon

Our Science House is being surrounded by a wall of thick, solid concrete blocks, like a fort. And we're building a wall of Jersey barriers packed with dirt through the Big Back Yard to protect our first floor, should the water get that high. The museum's first floor, by the way, is not where you enter. The first floor is way below that, and it's where we build exhibits and keep all of the machinery that maintains the climate in the building, so it's important that it doesn't get too wet down there.

Here's a slide show of the pictures I took of the construction this afternoon. For descriptions of what's happening in each, click on the photo (or go right to the Flickr photoset).

Feb
14
2011

We've probably been debating the virtues of urban areas since humans gathered in the first cities thousands of years ago. But one question we probably haven't explored much is how we can prepare our cities for climate change.

Climate and sea level have changed slowly throughout humanity's history, and we've been able to adapt. Until quite recently, humans either didn't build settlements in risky areas, or the ones they built (say on floodplains or near a sea shore) were temporary and easily moved or abandoned.

Now that we face accelerating and more extreme changes in the next 100 years, we also have some very permanent structures (and infrastructures) in the riskiest of places. Over 100 million people live in areas likely to be underwater by 2100. And even landlubbers face the challenges of more frequent extreme weather events--heavier rainfalls, droughts, etc.

St. Paul, MN: I bet there are thousands of ideas brewing in these buildings every day (especially the one on the lower left side).
St. Paul, MN: I bet there are thousands of ideas brewing in these buildings every day (especially the one on the lower left side).Courtesy John Polo

Luckily, engineers are already beginning to plan for these changes as they retrofit and build new buildings and infrastructure. Often, these engineers are ahead of city building codes and have trouble persuading property owners to invest in addressing threats that lie in the future. But isn't it better safe than sorry? Maybe we could build cities so strong that climate change barely bothers us.

And even luckier perhaps is that cities are hotbeds of innovation and creativity. We could see the efforts of these engineers as just another example of urban virtues. More people mean more ideas and more resources devoted to the cause. And in our rapidly changing world, we need that teamwork more than ever.

Feb
07
2011

Mt. St. Helens erupts in 1980: Yellowstone's supervolcano has erupted with one thousand times the power of the blast pictured here.
Mt. St. Helens erupts in 1980: Yellowstone's supervolcano has erupted with one thousand times the power of the blast pictured here.Courtesy USGS/Cascades Volcano Observatory
The gigantic volcano seething under Yellowstone National Park could be ready to erupt with the force of a thousand Mt. St. Helenses! Large parts of the U.S. could be buried under ash and toxic gas!

Or, y'know, not.

This story has popped up in a couple of places recently, including National Geographic's website and, more sensationally, the UK's Daily Mail. Shifts in the floor of Yellowstone's caldera indicate that magma may be pooling below the surface, a phenomenon that might be the very earliest stages of an eruption. Then again, it's difficult to predict volcanic eruptions with much accuracy because there's no good way to take measurements of phenomena happening so far below the earth's surface.

Incidentally, the contrast in tone between the two stories makes them an interesting case study in science reporting: The Daily Mail plays up the possible risk and horrific consequences of an eruption, while National Geographic is much more matter-of-fact about the remoteness of that possibility. Which do you think makes better reading?

Feb
04
2011

Dragonfly wing: Its structure is aiding wind-power researchers
Dragonfly wing: Its structure is aiding wind-power researchersCourtesy Mark Ryan
Researchers in Japan are studying the wing structure of dragonflies to help improve how micro wind turbines perform during high winds. Micro turbines are small, affordable energy converters that can be used in both urban and rural settings where giant turbines would be too expensive, too large, and too impractical. Micro turbines can be set up relatively easily in configurations of a single unit or as a bank of several units, and the energy generated can be stored in batteries.

They work on the same principle as the large turbines, but can generate power in wind speeds as low as 4 or 5 miles per hour. One fallback, though, is their generators can get overloaded when hit with high storm winds, producing more energy than the system can handle. Large turbines solve this problem by tilting their propellers - either by computer or otherwise - and adjusting their rotation speed. But that kind of technology just isn’t affordable with micro turbines.

That’s where studying dragonfly wings comes in. Aerospace engineer Akira Obata of Nippon Bunri University in Oita, Japan wondered how dragonflies were able to remain stable in flight at low speeds. He placed a plastic model of a dragonfly wing into a large tank of water laced with aluminum powder and videotaped the flow patterns. He noticed that as the water flow slowed down vortices arose on the wing’s surface that allowed the water to pass over the wing at the same speed, thus keeping it stable. But when water flow sped up the wings aerodynamics performance decreased.

So, Obata developed an inexpensive paper micro turbine with similar “dragonfly wing” bumps on its surface and it did just as he hoped. When air speeds flowing over the turbine wing increased between 15 and 90 mph, rather than speeding up its rotation and overwhelming its battery, the micro turbine curved into a conical shape that stunted rotation and kept power generation low.

New Scientist story
CNBC story on homemade micro turbine
Make your own micro turbine