Courtesy NISE NetworkWhen things get really really small (nanoscale small), they behave completely differently! For example, gold at the nanoscale can look purple, orange, or red; static electricity has a greater effect on nanoparticles than gravity; and aluminum (the stuff your benign soda cans are made of) is explosive at the nanoscale!
If you want to experience some of these nanoscale phenomena first-hand, check out whatisnano.org, or download the DIY Nano app. The website and the app were both created by the Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network (NISE Net for short), and have videos and activity guides, complete with instructions and material lists, so you can do some nano experiments at home! The app was a Parents' Choice award winner for 2012, and was featured in Wired Magazine's review of apps. Definitely worth a look!
Have fun exploring nanoscale properties!
Courtesy Worldmapper.org / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
(There are a lot of challenges to supporting seven billion people. Want to know more about that? Check out the University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment, where folks are working to find solutions to some of those problems.)
That's all fascinating and all, but...what about me? Luckily, the BBC has come to the rescue with a lovely little interactive that's, well, all about me. Or you. Whatever.
For example, according to the BBC calculator,
Not too shabby!
To give you a sense of just how fast our population is growing, here's a crazy little fact: by mid-century, the world's urban population will equal the size of the world's global population in 2004. Wow. Cities are efficient, and concentrate us so that we can use land for other purposes, but they're also ecological hotspots. Curious about how your household measures up? Try the household flux calculator, or check out the Q&A with Scientist on the Spot Daniel Nidzgorski.
Oh, and let us know: #whatsyournumber ?
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 Theresa Thompson
Winston Churchill once quipped, "democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others." Though said tongue-in-cheek, a recent article in New Scientist shows that, mathematically at least, Winnie was on to something.
Every election has winners and losers. Different countries have different systems for determining the winners, and dealing with the losers. And, it turns out, each of those systems has mathematical quirks which prevent the results from perfectly matching the will of the people.
In 1963, American economist Kenneth Arrow considered all these quirks and tried to describe the perfect voting system. He then proved that it was mathematically impossible. (Of course, this assumes the system he described really is perfect--I'm not so sure.)
It seems to me, though, that the problem isn't with democracy, but rather with representative democracy. The people of Minnesota elect only one governor, only one senator (at a time). And there's no way one person is going to perfectly reflect public opinion--be 53% in favor of issue A and 61% opposed to issue B. And even if they were, they still have to make a series of yes-or-no decisions, and be either 100% for 100% against any given bill.
The only way to have a perfect democracy is to have everybody vote on every issue, a system that would be far too cumbersome to work. Churchill was right: democracy is messy, but it's the best thing we've got.
Look out the window or walk down the street to nearly any river or stream in Minnesota right now and you are likely to observe two things about the river:
You can, of course, confirm these observations by investigating reports from gauging stations along these rivers, maintained by the U.S. Geological Survey. (See data for the gauging station serving downtown St. Paul.) But what is really happening?
Courtesy Liza Pryor
Until a river flows over its banks, it is considered to be in a “bankfull” state. In this state, the water flowing through the river is confined to a relatively fixed channel area. Simply put, floods occur because more water is being introduced into this channel from upstream, due to snowmelt, heavy rains, or a dam breach. As this added volume of water moves through a fixed area, it both increases in velocity and in depth until it overflows the banks, at which point some, but not necessarily a lot, of the volume and velocity moving through the channel are reduced.
Scientists call the rate of flow through a channel “discharge." Discharge is defined as the volume of water passing through a given cross-section of the river channel within a specified period of time.A simple equation for determining discharge is
Q = D x W x V
where Q = discharge, D = channel depth, W = channel width and V = velocity.
Looking at this equation, it is easy to see that if discharge becomes greater and channel width is fixed, then an increase in both volume and depth (or height relative to the banks) is likely to be the cause. Discharge can be measured in cubic feet per second or cubic meters per second, for example.
But is the river flowing at the same rate at the surface as it does along its banks and beds? Understanding this requires investigating some more detailed equations, as the banks and bed introduce friction, which affects the rate of flow.
To learn more about rivers and how they flow, you may want to check out the works of Luna Leopold, and M. Gordon Wolman. In particular:
Also, check out our full feature on the 2010 Mississippi River flooding.
Courtesy Ian Hampton
There's been a lot of news lately about "unintended acceleration" -- cars suddenly gaining high speed and drivers unable to stop them. Some observers question whether the problem lies with the car or with the driver. But whatever the cause, unintended acceleration is a deadly danger to the driving public.
Or is it?
Popular Mechanics crunched the numbers. They found unintended acceleration causes 3.2 deaths per year. This compares to:
If you find your car accelerating, slam on the brakes, throw it into neutral, and steer to the side of the road. But don't waste time worrying about it. Instead, you should spend your effort avoiding bad weather, distractions, and above all not driving under the influence.
When we decide to go from point A to point B, we have a plan. If driving, we would decide which route to take, which intersections to avoid, and we will estimate how much time it will take. As we do drive from A to B, we will, intuitively and deliberately, make changes – we might change our route because of a traffic jam, or speed up to try and cover time lost. Thus, as we encounter new information and unexpected situations, we, intuitively, make changes to our plans, for the better.
Scientists and engineers have been trying for years to bring this capability – of automatically changing plans – to machines. Research in robotics has focused on equipping machines with sensors and radars to detect changes and respond to that change. For example, Toyota Motor corporation equips its Lexus LS460 with a radar which detects vehicles and obstacles on the road ahead. When the radar detects the possibility of a collision, the vehicle retracts the seatbelts, warns the driver, and applies brakes to reduce collision speed. Such systems are dubbed “sense-response” systems, and today are even available in automated vacuum cleaners such as the Roomba. However, taking the sense-response system a step further, such that it is applicable to entire supply chain and production systems has proven difficult.
A key breakthrough in developing automated “sense-response” systems, that would enable developing automated production decision support, sales and marketing recommendations, and several other automated systems has recently been achieved. Dr. Nazrul Shaikh, a post doctoral researcher at University of Pennsylvania has worked on the characterization of the planning and re-planning problem and have developed solutions for several classes of sense-response problems. The research, which has survived the extensive peer review from academicians, in now all set to make an impact to homeland security and corporate America. It will change the way the automated planning systems are used and implemented in industry.
Dr. Shaikh’s quest to characterize the sense-response problems began in 2002 when they were devised an approach to develop an intelligent sense response system for supply chain event management for IBM. This was in the wake of 9/11 when Corporate America realized that they need to be able to handle exceptions to plans better. The research, called Exception Analytics looked at the deviation between the planned and the actual values of several system variables and attempted to infer the “action” required to compensate for the deviation. Applications have been developed for supply chain event management, homeland security, quality control and marketing planning. Keen interest has been displayed by several companies, especially in marketing where the consumer and competitor dynamics influence the demand drastically. The basic concepts have been published in several journals after clearing rigorous peer review.
Courtesy ESACan it be true? Yes, for a mere $5,544 dollars round-trip airfare to Greenland! In March 2009, the European Space Agency launched the Gravity field and steady-state Ocean Circulation Explorer (GOCE) into orbit around our planet, which is now transmitting detailed data about the Earth’s gravity. The GOCE satellite uses a gradiometer to map tiny variations in the Earth’s gravity caused by the planet’s rotation, mountains, ocean trenches, and interior density. New maps illustrating gravity gradients on the Earth are being produced from the information beamed back from GOCE. Preliminary data suggests that there is a negative shift in gravity in the northeastern region of Greenland where the Earth’s tug is a little less, which means you might weigh a fraction of a pound lighter there (a very small fraction, so it may not be worth the plane fare)!
In America, NASA and Stanford University are also working on the gravity issue. Gravity Probe B (GP-B) is a satellite orbiting 642 km (400 miles) above the Earth and uses four gyroscopes and a telescope to measure two physical effects of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity on the Earth: the Geodetic Effect, which is the amount the earth warps its spacetime, and the Frame-Dragging Effect, the amount of spacetime the earth drags with it as it rotates. (Spacetime is the combination of the three dimensions of space with the one dimension of time into a mathematical model.)
Quick overview time. The Theory of General Relativity is simply defined as: matter telling spacetime how to curve, and curved spacetime telling matter how to move. Imagine that the Earth (matter) is a bowling ball and spacetime is a trampoline. If you place the bowling ball in the center of the trampoline it stretches the trampoline down. Matter (the bowling ball) curves or distorts the spacetime (trampoline). Now toss a smaller ball, like a marble, onto the trampoline. Naturally, it will roll towards the bowling ball, but the bowling ball isn’t ‘attracting’ the marble, the path or movement of the marble towards the center is affected by the deformed shape of the trampoline. The spacetime (trampoline) is telling the matter (marble) how to move. This is different than Newton’s theory of gravity, which implies that the earth is attracting or pulling objects towards it in a straight line. Of course, this is just a simplified explanation; the real physics can be more complicated because of other factors like acceleration.
Courtesy noneSo what is the point of all this high-tech gravity testing? First of all, our current understanding of the structure of the universe and the motion of matter is based on Albert Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity; elaborate concepts and mathematical equations conceived by a genius long before we had the technology to directly test them for accuracy. The Theory of General Relativity is the cornerstone of modern physics, used to describe the universe and everything in it, and yet it is the least tested of Einstein’s amazing theories. Testing the Frame-Dragging Effect is particularly exciting for physicists because they can use the data about the Earth’s influence on spacetime to measure the properties of black holes and quasars.
Second, the data from the GOCE satellite will help accurately measure the real acceleration due to gravity on the earth, which can vary from 9.78 to 9.83 meters per second squared around the planet. This will help scientists analyze ocean circulation and sea level changes, which are influenced by our climate and climate change. The information that the GOCE beams back will also assist researchers studying geological processes such as earthquakes and volcanoes.
So, as I gobble down another mouthful of leftover turkey and mashed potatoes, I can feel confident that my holiday weight gain and the structure of the universe are of grave importance to the physicists of the world!
Philadelphia Phillies' second-baseman Eric Brunlett made an amazing and unassisted game-ending triple play against the New York Mets. The extremely rare play came in the ninth inning with the Mets trailing by two runs but threatening with runners on first and second base and no outs. Both base runners were stealing on a 2-2 pitch when the Mets batter hit a line drive right to Brunlett, who caught the ball for the first out, stepped on second base for the second out, then tagged out the runner from first. It's only the 15th unassisted triple play in major league history, and only the second to end a game. The poor Mets. The odds of this happening must be astronomical, but I'll let someone else figure that out.