Stories tagged NSF


[SETTING: Ted and Lily are in line at the cafeteria.]

Ted: [Leans over a little, like he’s sharing a secret.] I just heard from SAHRA that the National Science Foundation is funding another Critical Zone Observatory at the University of Arizona. That’ll make six CZOs.

Lily: [Shocked.] Sounds serious!

Ted: Well, yeah. I mean, the critical zone is basically the area along the Earth’s surface between the treetops aboveground and the groundwater table belowground. That’s where we do our day-to-day living and a lot of really important life-sustaining natural processes happen, like water and nutrient cycling.
Variety is the spice of life
Variety is the spice of lifeCourtesy cafemama

Lily: I was talking about Sarah. Who’s she?

Ted: [The miscommunication dawns on him.] Not Sarah, SAHRA. The Sustainability of semi-Arid Hydrology and Riparian Areas. They’re a Science and Technology Center based at the University of Arizona.

Lily: [Relieved.] Oh. Gotcha. Back to the Important Area Thingamabob. It sounds like a really big area with a whole lot going on. How’s anyone going to observe it?

Ted: You’re right. The critical zone is a massive area and studying it is daunting, but the NSF’s got something going on with these CZOs.

Lily: [Slightly annoyed.] Please chew with your mouth closed. You’re getting alphabet soup all over my shirt.

Ted: [Indignant.] What? Just ‘cause you can’t swim in my alphabet soup…

[Lily glares at Ted.]

Ted: [Sheepish.] Anyway, I was saying about how the Observatories are intended to be a resource for international collaborations between science disciplines. You know, interdisciplinary, multi-disciplinary, and such. This will allow scientists from geology, ecology, hydrology, etc to work together so we can understand how all the components interact in the Critical Zone.

Lily: Ah-ha! So the Observatories are like a potluck. Everyone brings their specialty to the table to make a whole meal.

Ted: Sure. And the best potlucks happen when lots of people bring something to share and there’s a variety of deliciousness.

Know what else? Each of the six Observatories is located in a different climate. More variety! By comparing the same processes in different climates, scientists will be better able to figure out how the critical zone will change under climate change.
Lily and Ted: On the set
Lily and Ted: On the setCourtesy pchow98

Lily: Huh. I had no idea that science news could make me so hungry.

Ted: Did you even hear what I just said?

Lily: [Mumbles to herself.] Where do you suppose I can get a recipe for tater tot hot dish? [To Ted.] Wait… whatdidjasay?

Ted: [Sighs.] Nevermind. I’m going to get some chocolate pudding. Want some?


A picture is worth how many words?

Effective illustration
Effective illustrationCourtesy Da Vinci

When attempting to communicate the world of science, visualization often works better than words. Illustrations are a quick and effective means for communicating science, engineering and technology to an often scientifically challenged population.

Competition makes us better

The National Science Foundation and the journal, Science, created the International Science & Engineering Visualization Challenge to encourage the continued growth toward this journalistic goal.

Judges appointed by the National Science Foundation and the journal Science will select winners in each of five categories: photographs, illustrations, informational graphics, interactive media and non-interactive media.

Want to see the winners?

This link will take you to the 2004-2009 International Science & Engineering Visualization Challenge winners. I am also embedding a You Tube video of past competitions below.

Radio Lab
Radio LabCourtesy WNYC

I just stumbled onto a radio show that I bet a lot of folks who read this blog are already aware of, but in case you are not... I caught the WNYC show Radio Lab for the first time on NPR a couple of weeks ago, and it is really interesting. It's a show that seems to be mostly about science (it is funded by NSF) and its interesting. The past few shows have been on race, sperm, choice and diagnosis. The show is available to download or subscribe to from their site or from iTunes. I recommend checking it out.

There was a particular part of an episode that I thought was really great. As part of their "diagnosis" show they had a part called How To Cure What Ails You. Its about 20 minutes long, and you can listen to it from the link. Its crazy interesting, I think.


Splitting water to store electricity: A snapshot showing the new, efficient oxygen catalyst in action in Dan Nocera's laboratory at MIT.
Splitting water to store electricity: A snapshot showing the new, efficient oxygen catalyst in action in Dan Nocera's laboratory at MIT.Courtesy MIT/NSF

Saving up energy for use at night

Want to be energy independent? Solar and wind energy are great but what do you do when the sun goes down and the wind doesn't blow? Batteries with the needed capacity are very expensive.

Energy can be saved up by breaking water apart into hydrogen and oxygen

Using a surprisingly simple, inexpensive technique, chemists have found a way to pull pure oxygen from water using relatively small amounts of electricity, common chemicals and a room-temperature glass of water. At night that oxygen can be combined with hydrogen (also extracted from water) in a fuel cell to make electricity.
The new process, enabling water to more easily be split, is to use a catalyst consisting of cobalt metal, phosphate and an electrode, placed in water.

"When electricity -- whether from a photovoltaic cell, a wind turbine or any other source -- runs through the electrode, the cobalt and phosphate form a thin film on the electrode, and oxygen gas is produced."
"The new catalyst works at room temperature, in neutral pH water, and it's easy to set up. That's why I know this is going to work. It's so easy to implement," Danial Nocera (MIT news office)

Within ten years

Nocera hopes that within 10 years, homeowners will be able to power their homes in daylight through photovoltaic cells, while using excess solar energy to produce hydrogen and oxygen to power their own household fuel cell. Electric vehicles will also power up from this home system.

Learn more: MIT News


Nano structure self assembly
Nano structure self assemblyCourtesy Scott Warren and Uli Wiesner, Cornell University

Materials scientists perfect nano assembly of catalytic meshes

Catalysts, because of its shape, can speed up chemical reactions. Platinum is a useful catalyst in fuel cells but because it costs over $2000 an ounce, it needs to be used efficiently. One way to maximize the effectiveness of platinum is to maximize its surface area.

Cornell researchers have developed a method to self-assemble metals into complex configurations with structural details about 100 times smaller than a bacterial cell by guiding metal particles into the desired form using soft polymers. NSF News

How to self-assemble porous nano mesh

To keep nano spheres of platinum from clumping or "globbing" they are coated with an organic material known as a ligand. The innovative use of the ligands allows for the metal nanoparticles to be dissolved in a solution containing long co-polymer chains, or blocks, of molecules linked together to form a predictable pattern. After the spheres have filled in the spaces created by the co-polymer chains, heat is applied until the polymer turns to a carbon scaffold. The scaffold holds the platinum spheres in place until cooled. The carbon is then dissolved away leaving an intricate hexagonal mesh of platinum (see image above).

New surface textures will benefit plasmonics science

These metalic surfaces will also be of interest to scientists working in an area called plasmonics. Plasmonics is the study of interactions among metal surfaces, light, and density waves of electrons, known as plasmons. Improved optics applications, like lasers, displays, and lenses and better transmission of information within microchips will be some benefits.


The Arecibo Observatory with the Angel Ramos Visitor Center in the foreground: Image courtesy of the NAIC - Arecibo Observatory, a facility of the NSF.
The Arecibo Observatory with the Angel Ramos Visitor Center in the foreground: Image courtesy of the NAIC - Arecibo Observatory, a facility of the NSF.
What’s the coolest radio telescope (sorry Green Bank) and the largest single-aperture telescope on Earth? What radio scope has been featured in a James Bond movie? And a Jodie Foster movie? And collects data for the [email protected] project?


Arecibo is an amazingly awesome project that has a history of discoveries since its construction in 1963. In 1964 scientists using it determined Mercury’s rotation was 59 days, not 88 days as previously thought. The telescope helped prove that neutron stars exist. It aided scientists in discovering the first binary pulsar. It aided scientists in finding the first extrasolar planets. It is able to track asteroids with enough precision to determine which ones might impact the Earth. And, back during more paranoid times, the telescope was used to look for Soviet Union radar installations by detecting their signals bouncing off of the Moon. The telescope also beamed into space a radio message in 1974 towards star cluster M13. The telescope also studies space weather (specifically the impact of solar flares on satellite and cell phones) and climate change. The telescope has a visitor center (Angel Ramos Visitor Center) attached that brings in more than 100,000 visitors a year.

Recently, the National Science Foundation, a long time funder for the telescope and its various scientific programs, has told Arecibo that it will need to close if it cannot find $4 million, or half the $8 million annual operating budget. In part, the idea is to free up funds for other, new, projects. This all makes total sense to me, but I am somehow emotionally attached to this thing, having never been there (its in Puerto Rico), but having written a report on it when I was in 5th grade.

Just last week, however, Cornell University’s National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center held a meeting, “Frontiers of Astronomy with The World’s Largest Radio Telescope,” with astronomers from around the world to discuss plans for future research using Arecibo over the next 5 to 15 years. Hopefully, this meeting will lead to securing the funding needed to keep the telescope operational.

Below is part of a report commissioned by NSF, charging a Senior Review Committee with the task of examining the Division of Astronomical Sciences portfolio of facilities and with the goal of redistributing roughly $30 million of annual spending. There’s a lot of stuff in the section below, and I’ve tried to hyperlink as much as possible so you can learn more. Again, I think NSF is making total sense, but man, change is hard...I’m going to miss Arecibo.

The Senior Review Committee (SR) recognizes the significant and unique scientific contributions that the Arecibo Observatory has made to astronomy and astrophysics and it congratulates National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center (NAIC) and Cornell on operating the facility so effectively. The current scientific program set out for Arecibo involving a combination of survey work and competed, smaller observing programs is very strong and is already producing important discoveries. The SR endorses its future discovery potential and archival value. Roughly 200 scientists from all around the world are working with the three Arecibo L-Band Feed Array surveys, all three of which promise important scientific results.

However, the committee was not persuaded of the primacy of the science program beyond the end of the decade and found that the case for long term support at the present level was not as strong as that for other facilities. Much of the survey work will be completed by 2010 when the current NAIC contract expires and the proposed extensions to higher Galactic latitude do not seem as likely as the current surveys to have a large scientific impact. The SR was advised that the minimum feasible operating cost for Arecibo is $8M, even when it is largely working in survey mode. Therefore, invoking Principle 1, [Principal 1 - Optimizing the Science. The prime criterion, when making difficult choices between operating existing facilities and investing in new ones, is maximizing the integrated science impact for the overall US financial investment] the SR recommends a decrease in Division of Astronomical Sciences (AST) support for Arecibo to $8M (plus the $2M from Division of Atmospheric Sciences over the next three years. Roughly 20 percent of the observing time should be set aside for individual (non-survey) proposals in order to retain some discovery potential. This should permit a reduction in the scientific and observing support staff and a discontinuation of the future instrumentation program without compromising the main science program. Thereafter, the SR recommends that NAIC plan either to close Arecibo or to operate it with a much smaller AST budget. This will require that NAIC seek sufficient external funding to continue to operate it fully. This support might be coupled to Arecibo’s status as one of the most important and visible high technology enterprises in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. An alternative possibility is to seek one or more foreign partners. This could have appeal to countries that wish to build up a capability in radio astronomy or communications technology. The SR recommends closure after 2011 if the necessary support is not forthcoming. It recommends that operation of the Angel Ramos Visitor Center continue, consistent with Principle 3. [Principal 3 - The Public Dividend. Public awareness of astronomical discoveries, the observatories that produce them, and the personnel who are responsible for them, are a critical part of the current AST program that must be maintained.]

If Arecibo is kept operating beyond 2011, it is expected that this will only be a limited term extension, pending the deliberations of the next decadal survey. In any case, Arecibo’s longer term future depends upon progress with the Square Kilometer Array which will be fully steerable, have ten times the collecting area, will access more of the sky to higher frequency and will have the angular resolution of an interferometer, leaving Arecibo as a niche telescope. This raises the important question of the cost of decommissioning the telescope, which could be prohibitively large. The committee concluded that there were no reliable de-commissioning estimates and recommends that AST engage an independent study to advise on the viability and cost of decommissioning the telescope. Obtaining this information is a pre-requisite to long term planning.

(Oh. And I hope that something else out there is tracking asteroids. That whole monitoring them for Earth impact seems important to me.)


Shake it up

Bridge shaking experiment
Bridge shaking experiment
Want to see what happens to a bridge during an 8.0 magnitude earthquake? Huge "shake tables" help engineers understand the impact of earthquake forces on bridges and other construction.

You can watch

This Thursday (Feb 15) at 10 am Reno, Nevada time, a quarter scale, 110 ft., 4 span bridge section will be shaken by forces twice the intensity of the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

The Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation (NEES) website has provided links to a variety of resources:

Earning a bachelor's degree in science or engineering serves the degree holder well in the workforce, regardless of what job they do, according to a National Science Foundation (NSF) survey. The survey found that science degree holders generally report that science and engineering knowledge is important to their job, even if the graduate ends up doing non-technical work.