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!
Courtesy Eadweard Muybridge
Scientists who study animal behavior have always had their work cut out for them. For one thing, animal behavior is complex, often involving tiny movements that are not visible to the naked eye. When studying the behavior of animals in groups, this can become even more complicated. Where do you begin to look for patterns? How do you make sense of what you see?
Another difficultly of studying animal behavior comes in designing research tools and experiments that don't interfere with the animal's natural environment. If you've ever tried to walk up to a bird or a squirrel, you know how hard it can be to get close enough to take a good look. The slightest movement or sound, even smells that humans can't smell, can put animals on edge, which might alter the way that they behave.
Over the years, recording equipment and new technologies have made it possible to study animal behavior in new ways. From the invention of photography, which allowed researchers to "freeze" animals and then to set those images in motion, studying how animals move - to newer kinds of imaging techniques that allow today's scientists to observe animal behavior in difficult situations, studying imperceptible changes in their bodies and brains as they move.
This article from The Scientist magazine details how a few researchers have overcome obstacles to studying animal behavior, including the story of a researcher who uses infrared heat-sensing cameras to study the flight trajectories of bats in Brazil. Using ordinary cameras, the necessary lights would disturb the natural behavior of the bats, but infrared cameras give researchers a glimpse of how a very large group of bats behaves at night.
This technology can also be used to study the collective group behavior of other creatures, from very large elephants, to butterflies. Check out the video below to see what bat researchers in Brazil saw when they put these cameras inside a cave.
If you know about Google Earth, you've probably used this satellite tool at least once. If you're like most people (myself included), your first impulse was to search for your own rooftop, then to zoom out, looking around your neighborhood or town to see what you could recognize. It's amazing the the detail you can see from your own computer!
It's not surprising that at least a few people across the globe have found ingenious ways to harness this technology for good. When the first photos of Earth were taken from space in the last century, it changed the perspective of everyday people and inspired movements to protect the planet and its natural systems. What kinds of world-changing movements will this new technology inspire in the years to come?
Below is a quick round-up from the folks at Google of some cool projects that already use Google Earth technology. Can you think of any other ways that this tool might be used for good in your community or around the world? If so, you can submit your idea or story to Google and they might feature it on their website.
Environmental researchers have used Google Earth and Maps to track the movement of an 'island' of garbage twice the size of the state of Texas as it floats across the surface of the ocean. Project Kaisei researchers have experimented with converting plastic particles from this island into diesel, and hope to eventually power their research vessels with this fuel, creating fully sustainable expeditions. Check out the project's website
Save the Elephants
Founder of Save the Elephants, Dr. Douglas-Hamilton has worked to protect elephants in Mali from poachers and other threats. He now uses Google Earth to track elephants on a map and has been able to save many animals' lives, rescuing trapped elephants and helping animals suffering from the effects of local drought and climate change.
Borneo Orangutan Survival
The number of Orangutans in the wild today is decreasing at a staggering pace largely because of the destruction of their rainforest habitats. Willie Smits and the Borneo Orangutan Survival Organization have used Google Earth as a platform to enable everyone to participate in their reforestation project by viewing and adopting forest acreage in the Samboja Lestari region.
Chief Almir and the Surui
Since he first observed the illegal logging of his tribe's territory with Google Earth in an internet cafe several years ago, Chief Almir Surui has worked to raise awareness about this issue. Most recently members of the Google Earth Outreach team traveled to the Amazon to teach the Surui how mobile devices can be used to capture photos of illegal logging activity.
Appalachian Voices, a grassroots environmental group in North Carolina, has educated millions of people, including policy-makers and legislators, about this destructive mining process by flying users over the 470 mine sites in the Appalachian mountains with Google Earth. The organization also has a layer in Google Earth dedicated to these efforts.
More information about these stories, including videos, can be found here
When you visit a doctor, he or she usually uses a medical device to measure your vital signs, such as heart rate, blood pressure and temperature. The doc might also draw some blood to test in the laboratory for its biochemical composition. Environmental scientists do similar activities to determine the health of an estuary. But an estuary is huge in comparison to a human being; getting enough data to draw meaningful conclusions can be challenging.
Here’s where LOBO, CMOP’s Land/Ocean Biogeochemical Observatory, comes in. WET Labs, Inc. senior research scientist Andrew Barnard, Ph.D. and CMOP researcher Joe Needoba, Ph.D. have teamed up to develop innovative methods to collect high quality, long-term data sets to improve scientific understanding of the vital signs of the Columbia River estuary.
Traditionally, any effort to monitor the “biogeochemistry” of a body of water requires scientists to board a ship, collect water samples, transport them back to a lab, and then measure the nutrients in the water. These trips are expensive and time-consuming and yet they only provide a “snapshot” of the estuary’s biogeochemical vital signs at the time of the shipboard sampling trip. Barnard and Needoba decided to approach the problem by utilizing an oceanographic monitoring platform made by Satlantic and customizing it with enhanced capabilities and improved water quality sensors.
LOBO is a water quality monitoring device that takes hourly measurements of nitrate, salinity, temperature, chlorophyll, turbidity, conductivity, depth, dissolved oxygen, oxygen saturation, and colored dissolved organic matter (CDOM).
LOBO is part of the Science and Technology University Research Network (SATURN), an end-to-end coastal margin observatory at CMOP. The data will provide the center with a better understanding of the ecosystem and composition of the water in the Columbia River and its estuary.
“What we are trying to do is establish a monitoring system that allow us to gain an understanding of the variability of the water quality, not only every hour but over weeks, months, and years,” said Needoba. “What this will tell us is how the estuary is behaving and responding to various forcing factors.”
LOBO is currently located in the Lower Columbia River and uses cellular telemetry to relay data every hour to a web site. The web interface lets anyone with and internet connection who is interested graph and download an individual variable or multiple variables, on a single day or over multiple days.
The LOBO system will serve as an important biogeochemical data node within CMOP. “What we are doing in the Columbia River estuary is part of a larger project within CMOP to provide a framework of water quality measurements to scientists studying the estuary and coastal ocean,“ said Needoba.
The next step is to use the upcoming CMOP research cruises to verify that the data from the LOBO mooring is representative of the estuary as a whole. Needoba plans to use future research cruises to study the variability associated with different regions of the estuary and ensure that the aspects of the water quality his team measures in one specific site can be extrapolated to the entire estuary.
Barnard and his group at WET Labs, Inc. intend to expand the LOBO's biogeochemical monitoring capabilities by adding a new sensor to measurement dissolved phosphate in the water. “We will use our latest and greatest technology to create better capabilities for long term measurements and monitoring,” said Barnard.