The University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment has made some great movies examining what they call "big questions."
Big question: Feast or famine?
IonE's first Big Question asks: How do we feed a growing world without destroying the planet?
Big question: Is Earth past the tipping point?
Have we pushed our planet past the tipping point? That's a critical issue the IonE explores in our second Big Question video.
Big question: What is nature worth?
Plants, animals, even entire ecosystems are disappearing. So what? "What is Nature Worth" offers a three-minute look at what we’re REALLY losing – and what we can do about it.
Interesting problems, right? If you're intrigued, and want to know more about the folks posing the questions and trying to find the solutions, jump over to Future Earth.
I've been thinking about cars a lot lately as I reflect on sustainable technologies and wait for the Th!nk to be sold in America. Even though cars aren't the worst offender when it comes to global warming, their impact is significant and I itch for the kinds of innovation that will reinvent the way we live again. So I hope you enjoy coming along on this little thought journey.
Courtesy Norbert Schnitzler
I wasn't much interested in cars (beyond them getting me to work) until I had to research the history of automobiles for an exhibit. What got my attention was the process of innovation. In the late 1800s, there were three major technologies vying for supremacy: steam, electricity, and internal combustion.
Courtesy Detroit Electric
At first, steam did best because it provided a lot of power. But steam cars took a long time to start and had to be refilled often. Ladies tended to prefer electric cars like the Detroit Electric because they were clean and silent, though they didn't go very fast, very far, or have a lot of torque. Going uphill was a pain. Early internal combustion cars were dirty and smelly, and starting one could really mess up your arm if it kicked back.
Hundreds of upstart companies created models using these three technologies with a variety of designs. Innovation was rampant. Nobody knew what a car looked like because it didn't exist before. Early cars mimicked buggies until it became clear that lowering the body on the wheels was more stable. All different kinds of designs were tried out, and companies came and went in the blink of an eye.
At first, there wasn't even a standard steering mechanism--some early cars used a tiller rather than a wheel. People could even buy engines and build their own cars at home. Over time, strong designs supported stable companies that stayed in business as others failed. It was a time of fast-paced innovation in America and other nations, and that was so exciting to think about as I researched. It sparked my imagination about our future.
Courtesy Utah State Historical Society
I also felt a little nostalgic--steam and electric still have their advantages over internal combustion (IC). The reason IC engines became the dominant technology is that Henry Ford began mass-producing the Model T on a motorized assembly line in 1913. Although it wasn't the first mass-produced car in the US as is commonly believed (the 1901 Curved Dash Oldsmobile holds that title), the IC-driven Model T was affordable and you could buy most of the replacement parts at a hardware store.
Then in 1919, the Model T acquired one other asset--the electric starter. The starter took the danger out of starting IC engines, thereby removing one of the major setbacks of gasoline. These advantages helped cement internal combustion as the leading automotive technology, as well as establishing the success of the steering wheel.
But my nostalgia makes me wonder--what if the electric starter hadn't come around? What if Ford had made electric or steam vehicles? What if battery storage had made better progress? What would we be driving today? I think we could easily have built our transportation infrastructure to support any of those technologies.
When the electric Citicar was built in the 1970s in response to the oil crisis, the company essentially started where electric cars left off in the 1920s. Part of what is taking electrics so long to catch on now is that we're having to re-invent the wheel so to speak. But I don't think that means we should lose heart. If we had spent the last 90 years working on electric vehicles, electric cars might well be running circles around internal combustion engines.
The same could be said for steam. In fact, a little known car called the Doble started nearly as quickly and easily as an IC car and could go farther before refilling, but in addition to bad management in the company, IC had already taken a strong lead by the time Dobles appeared on the market.
Far from being disappointing, my nostalgia makes me hopeful that we can return to that state of openness and innovation--that we can build on electric and other technologies to develop not just a replacement for internal combustion, but something better. When I sit with my grandchildren someday, I want to tell them the amazing story of how we avoided a crisis not by sacrifice but by being so gosh darn creative. I want to see something so cool that it makes gasoline a quaint throwback to an earlier era. And I want to see it happen for agriculture, power plants, and the economy, too.
What do you think? Is it too tall an order? Or can we invent our way to a better world? Got any ideas for how to do it?
Sophisticated forecast modeling tools developed at the Center for Coastal Margin Observation & Prediction (CMOP) were recently used to assist in the rescue of a disabled underwater glider.
CMOP researchers spent two days using a particle-tracking model to predict where and when their glider, nicknamed “Phoebe,” would drift ashore. This helped researchers understand how much time they had to stage a recovery operation.
“Once Phoebe became a drifting glider, we treated her as a major piece of scientific instrumentation at risk and an opportunity to test our computer models in a sea emergency,” says Antonio Baptista, director of CMOP. “The forecasting system used for Phoebe is the same that we are currently transferring to the U.S. Coast Guard and NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) for inclusion in their respective operational and emergency response systems.”
Phoebe is a bright yellow glider that moves through the water, gathering information, and sending satellite signals back to land each time she surfaces. She was sent out on her first mission of the year on April 16, 2010 to collect data in the waters off the Washington coast as a collaborative research effort with the Quinault Indian Nation.
Five days into her mission, Phoebe stopped communicating.
Katie Rathmell and Michael Wilkin, members of the CMOP field team in Astoria, Oregon, waited and hoped to receive a signal from her. Hours passed and still no signal. Then almost 24 hours later, Phoebe called home. She had surfaced and transmitted a GPS signal of her current location.
“We reviewed the files she sent and determined that she had gotten stuck at 8.4 meters below the surface and was unable to come up to the surface,” says Rathmell.
The team theorized that Phoebe got tangled in a kelp bed. After a pre-programmed period of time, she jettisoned her emergency ballast weight, which gave her enough buoyancy to escape the entanglement and surface. But having dropped the ballast weight meant she could no longer dive or maneuver. Phoebe was adrift in the ocean.
Rathmell and Wilkin started talking about how to stage a rescue. The challenge was the gale force winds offshore were making the seas too rough for ships to get out of the harbor. The team would have to wait until weather conditions improved.
Even though Phoebe was disabled, she was capable of transmitting a GPS signal every 30 minutes. This allowed the team to track her location. She was drifting south and getting closer to the Columbia River plume. They were concerned she might get caught in the incoming tide. This would pull her into the river and possibly crash her into the jetty. Currents and winds could also push her onto the beach and the surf could break up the glider. The problem was the team was unsure which direction she would drift.
That is when they made the decision to use CMOP’s modeling tools to help narrow down Phoebe’s potential drifting trajectories, possible threats, and windows of time for a recovery operation.
“The team hoped the weather would break in time for a successful recovery. The models helped predict how much time they had to recover Phoebe,” says Paul Turner, senior research programmer.
The data for the particle tracking comes from the forecast models that CMOP runs on a continuous basis. Turner ran simulations for two days using the winds, currents and tides to predict where Phoebe might end up. He generated graphs that predicted drifting directions in one, two, three and four hour intervals.
“Paul Turner did a very good job of getting the modeling and drifter prediction tools working in a fashion that allowed the data to be useful for us,” says Wilkin.
The forecast model showed that time was running out for Phoebe. The prevailing winds and currents were pushing her closer to shore. It was imperative to rescue her soon.
For several days, the conditions were too dangerous to cross the Columbia Bar and get the glider safely aboard a ship. Then around 10:30 on Sunday morning, the research team received word there was a break in the weather and Captain Dan Schenk from Sea Breeze Charters in Ilwaco, Washington would take them out.
Rathmell and Wilkin boarded the “Nauti-Lady” and took a rough ride over the Columbia Bar en route to Phoebe’s last known location.
Finding Phoebe was a challenge. This time of year there are crab traps set out in the ocean and many of their floats are the same color as Phoebe. The team would spot something on the surface of the water that might be Phoebe but it turned out to be something else.
Then they spotted her tangled up in crab lines and floats. “She was surrounded by kelp, plastic, beer bottles, and all sorts of trash,” says Rathmell. They were successful in getting hold of her, removing the crab lines, and pulling her aboard the ship. The team safely returned Phoebe to shore.
“The successful rescue of Phoebe, under difficult sea conditions, is a credit to the team work among the Astoria field team, boat operators, modelers and programmers,” says Baptista. “CMOP’s oceanographic knowledge, field observations, computer models, and cyber infrastructure all came together to allow people to make the right decisions at the right time.”
CMOP will use the lessons learned from Phoebe’s rescue operation to further improve their scientific and engineering infrastructure.
Back when BP was still trying the "top kill" method of slowing the flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, the news was full of references to "drilling mud."
This stuff is no ordinary mud. It helps a rig drill faster and keeps the equipment cool and lubricated, but it's got some wacky other properties. It's a non-Newtonian fluid. That means its viscosity changes as you apply stress. If you punch or hit a shear thickening non-Newtonian fluid, the atoms in the fluid rearrange themselves in such a way that the liquid acts like a solid. A shear thinning non-Newtonian fluid (like ketchup or toothpaste) behaves the opposite way, getting thinner and drippier under stress.
Still don't quite get it? Check this video:
When they're running--applying a stress whenever their feet strike the surface--the fluid acts like a solid and they can walk on top of it. But when he stands still....
The Mythbusters have played with this phenomenon, too:
So. Drilling mud behaves kind of the same way. Here's Bill Nye explaining it all on CNN. When the drilling mud passes through a narrow opening, under pressure, it locks up and acts more like a solid. The idea was that if BP could pump a water-based drilling mud into the ruined well head and get it to solidify, then they could slow the flow of oil enough that engineers could encase the whole thing in cement. It didn't work. That's because the oil and gas spewing out of the pipe are under tremendous pressure. BP engineers just couldn't pump enough mud in there to stop the oil.
But oobleck isn't. What's oobleck? It's a non-Newtonian fluid you can make and play with at home.
Instructables tells you how.
I see the American Museum of Natural History in NY is going to have an exhibit on the Scott and Amundsen 'race' to the South Pole. (See NYTimes Art section: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/29/arts/design/29race.html?ref=arts ). I look forward to seeing that exhibit.
Being a weather guy.... Dr. Susan Solomon, a senior scientist at the NOAA and an IPCC author, has a book (The Coldest March: Scott`s Fatal Antarctic Expedition) that indicates that an unusually cold Antarctic autumn contributed to the death of Captain Robert F. Scott and his four comrades on their 1500-kilometer (900-mile) trek back from the South Pole in March 1912. Temperatures were 10° to 20° colder than expected during the race to the South Pole. The cold weather cut in half the distance the explorers could travel in a day. A blizzard trapped them in a tent, where they froze to death 18 kilometers (11 miles) from a supply depot.
Another fact I find interesting, is that the Scott expedition revealed that Antarctica once basked in warmth. Among the 16 kilograms (35 pounds) of rocks the expedition collected were fossils of Glossopteris, a seed fern. This fossil is scientific evidence that the current ice-covered continent was once fertile.
Holy cow, Buzzketeers. The oil spill news just keeps coming! I can hardly keep up READING about it, much less BLOGGING.
So I'm going to leave you this weekend with a series of cool links, and you and I can read together.
Start with this mind-boggling plethora of interactive features and graphics from the NYTimes Gulf of Mexico oil spill multimedia collection.
An interactive map tracking the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, plus: video, graphics, and photos."
"Two weeks ago, the government put out a round estimate of the size of the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico: 5,000 barrels a day. Repeated endlessly in news reports, it has become conventional wisdom.
But scientists and environmental groups are raising sharp questions about that estimate, declaring that the leak must be far larger. They also criticize BP for refusing to use well-known scientific techniques that would give a more precise figure."
"Tony Hayward, the beleaguered chief executive of BP, has claimed its oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is "relatively tiny" compared with the "very big ocean".
In an bullish interview with the Guardian at BP's crisis centre in Houston, Hayward insisted that the leaked oil and the estimated 400,000 gallons of dispersant that BP has pumped into the sea to try to tackle the slick should be put in context.
"The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume," he said."
"Scientists are finding enormous oil plumes in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico, including one as large as 10 miles long, 3 miles wide and 300 feet thick in spots. The discovery is fresh evidence that the leak from the broken undersea well could be substantially worse than estimates that the government and BP have given."
"NEW ORLEANS — After more than three weeks of efforts to stop a gushing oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico, BP engineers achieved some success on Sunday when they used a milelong pipe to capture some of the oil and divert it to a drill ship on the surface some 5,000 feet above the wellhead, company officials said."
"Local environmental officials throughout the Gulf Coast are feverishly collecting water, sediment and marine animal tissue samples that will be used in the coming months to help track pollution levels resulting from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
Hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake, since those readings will be used by the federal government and courts to establish liability claims against BP. But the laboratory that officials have chosen to process virtually all of the samples is part of an oil and gas services company in Texas that counts oil firms, including BP, among its biggest clients."
"GRAND ISLE, La. — Local and state officials here voiced desperation on Thursday as their fears became far more tangible, with oil from the BP spill showing up on shore as tar balls, sheens and gooey slicks.
In Washington, the Environmental Protection Agency said it had told the oil company to immediately select a less toxic dispersant than the one it is now using to break up crude oil gushing from a ruined well in the Gulf of Mexico. Once the agency has signed off on a different product, it said, the company would then have 72 hours to start using it."
"The release of millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico could have profound effects for wildlife and aquatic life, and now is threatening to go beyond the Gulf. Midmorning looks at the impact of the spill."
And last, but not least, here's the relevant page on the website of the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, which has a nice aggregator of oil spill news, along with video from the ocean floor.
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?
Courtesy NOAAWhen I woke up this morning and checked the NOAA flood forecast for the downtown Saint Paul station it was at 19.7 feet above the normal stage. Yikes, the forecast still keeps going up. The river is predicted to crest on March 24th (next Wednesday).
Other flood related resources from my morning browsing:
The StarTribune visits the NOAA, National Weather Service Weather Forecast Office, in Chanhassen, MN. The scientists at NOAA explain what's different about this year's snow melt...complete with some classic Minnesota accents.
Check out what downtown Saint Paul looked like in the 2001 Mississippi River flood. So far, no one's predicting this year's food will be as bad as that historic spring melt, when the river crested at 23.67 feet.
And, for purely nostalgic purposes, here's a pic of Minnesota Governor Karl Rolvaag (he's in front of the guy with a bag on his head), President Lyndon Johnson, and Senator Walter Mondale (looking quite dashing back in the day) standing dangerously close to the river in the really bad 1965 Mississippi river flood. The river crested at 26 feet that year.
Check out our full feature on the 2010 Mississippi River flooding.
Courtesy Mark RyanThe Minnesota Science Olympiad State Competition for Division-B (junior high and middle school) students was held this past weekend at the University of St. Thomas campus in St. Paul, MN. The annual competition gives burgeoning scientists a chance to show off the knowledge, compete against each other and win some medals, too. Categories span across various disciplines, including ornithology, ecology, meteorology, paleontology, astronomy, anatomy, robotics, geology, and aeronautics.
Courtesy Mark RyanParticipants demonstrated scientific principles in several competitions. Team-constructed catapults launched projectiles in the Trajectory contest. The Wright Stuff gave future aeronautical engineers a chance to test their theories of flight dynamics using airplanes built of wood, paper, glue and rubber bands. The Shock Value category dealt with aspects of electricity, and precision built electrical cars were run through their courses in the Battery Buggy meet. But actually I never saw any of it. I was busy elsewhere.
Courtesy Mark RyanMrs. R (my wife) knows Brandi Hansmeyer, one of the division directors for the Science Olympiad in Minnesota, and I was enlisted to be the substitute coordinator/judge for the Fossils event on Saturday morning. What this entailed was setting up a classroom with fossil specimens and such, collecting tickets, distributing answer sheets to the teams, and timing their sessions (3 minutes) at each of the 15 stations. Most stations involved 3 or 4 questions that kids had to answer about a particular fossil, such as its classification, origins, etc. Participants were allowed to refer to binder notes or reference books they brought with them, which was a good thing, because to tell you the truth it was by no means an easy test. But as one of the organizers told me, the difficulty helps bring the cream to the top. Even so, most if not all of kids I saw showed lots of enthusiasm and a serious interest in science regardless of their level of knowledge.
Courtesy Mark RyanAfterwards, Mrs. R and I quickly graded the tests and ranked them by score then rushed them to the main tabulator for the award ceremony that afternoon. Bronze, silver, and gold medals are presented to each of the winning team members for individual events, and plaques and trophies are presented to the school teams with the most overall points. This coming weekend the senior high division will hold its Science Olympiads Competition, also at St. Thomas. Winners from both divisions get to compete in the national competition held later this spring at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. It’s a nice prize for all their dedication and hard work in the previous year.
Courtesy Nino BarbieriA recent article in the Journal of Archaeological Science reminded me of the importance of the Scientific Method Often we hear new and exciting scientific theories that seem plausible, especially if these ideas are presented in prestigious journals. However, the beauty of the Scientific Method is its verifiability, whether or not the data can be recreated through repetitive testing (If we truly believed everything the first time, our budding young scientists would have nothing to do!)
Michael Campana from the University of Cambridge and colleagues from across the UK and Ireland recently ran a sequence of DNA tests on 18th and 19th century parchments made from animal skins in order to reveal the complexities of ancient parchment analysis. Parchment is one of the most valuable archaeological and historical artifacts that can be used to understand not only language and history, but DNA testing on it can reveal clues to animal population studies, animal husbandry, different historical animal breeds, and provenance (where the animal or skins originated from). In the case of the Dead Sea Scrolls, DNA testing on the parchment could reveal what type of animal was used and possibly where it came from, providing additional data for questions regarding who wrote the scrolls.
Campana and colleagues analyzed both mitochondrial and autosomal genetic data using stable isotope, genetic, phylogenetic and ion beam analysis. All samples were considered to be well preserved and ideal samples for accurate testing. All but one parchment produced multiple DNA sequences that matched several different species including cow, goat, sheep, and even human. In other words, a parchment assumed to be made from one individual of one species, gave conflicting results as more than one species or more than one individual. Of course it can be assumed the parchment was not made of human skin and therefore human genetic data must have came from handling and processing of the parchment, but parchments can also be contaminated in long-term storage or contact with each other. Testing results can also be skewed by glues and inks or other preparatory treatments used to improve the surface. All of these factors need to be considered when testing truly ancient parchment like the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Previous DNA test results from 2001 and 1996 on the Dead Sea Scrolls produced results pointing to a single species, either ibex (Capra ibex) or domestic goat. While these results may indeed be correct, the likelihood that the results were so exact, when testing such as Campana's and colleagues on better preserved and more recent parchment were so complex, questions the accuracy of the earlier DNA testing. Of course we must not forget, precious artifacts like the Dead Sea Scrolls can not be needlessly dissected to offer unlimited samples for DNA testing labs. But as, Campana states, “Improving our understanding of parchment's DNA content would allow us to develop a predictive model for sampling of historic manuscripts.”
So the messages for today, bravo for the Scientific Method and go see the Dead Sea Scrolls at the Science Museum! Learn the science, archaeology, history and more that surround these amazing artifacts. Ask questions like: did the scroll writers choose ibex for some scrolls over goat because they thought these documents were so special or was ibex as readily available as any other animal species? Did the handling of the scrolls by shepherds who supposedly found them contaminate the actual scroll DNA with sheep, human or goat DNA? What can DNA testing tell us about other ancient artifacts? As long as there are unanswered questions, no matter how small, there will be a need for scientific investigation; which is good news for our future scientists!