Stories tagged Scientific Enterprise


Are we too sexy for research?: A controversy over government funding of research about duck genitalia has people asking bigger questions about public funding for scientific purposes.
Are we too sexy for research?: A controversy over government funding of research about duck genitalia has people asking bigger questions about public funding for scientific purposes.Courtesy Luis Miguel Bugallo Sánchez
They're the favorite punching bags and punchlines for politicians and late night comics: those seemingly odd science research projects. Right now there's a turmoil over a National Science Foundation grant of some $385,000 to study the genitalia of ducks.

The Washington Post today digs deeper into these kinds of projects. Are they frivolous? Do they lead to deeper scientific findings? If the government doesn't provide the funding, would anybody else? Does the government have a obligation to help provide opportunities for such research to happen? Who and how do we decide if a study is worth funding for the greater good of society? They're all interesting questions.

One of the problems of the past, the article notes, is that scientists typically have kept quiet and take their lumps from the critics while their research goes on. The thinking is that the critics don't want to understand science, so why even engage them in an argument. And unknown benefits can emerge from such projects. A researcher looking into why bluebirds are blue is now on the cusp of developing a new way to make paint.

It's a great topic for debate. Read the article and share your thoughts here with other Science Buzz readers.


Rolling, rolling, rolling: Tomorrow marks the 10-year anniversary of the landing of NASA's Mars rover Opportunity. It's still taking pictures and collecting data on the Red Planet.
Rolling, rolling, rolling: Tomorrow marks the 10-year anniversary of the landing of NASA's Mars rover Opportunity. It's still taking pictures and collecting data on the Red Planet.Courtesy NASA
Can we expect to get more than 10 years out of our cars today? At best, they get listed as a "late model" vehicle in some classified ads. So how about our space cars?

This week the Mars rover Opportunity is marking its tenth year of rolling around the Red Planet. Not too shabby for something that was designed for just a quick three-month life span. It's partner rover, Spirit, seized up and got permanently stuck in sand three years ago. And now both vehicles are being overshadowed by Curiosity, the high-tech rover that just landed on Mars five months ago.

Like any older vehicle, Opportunity has its quirks. It gets around mostly in reverse these days because one of the front wheels doesn't turn well. Its robot arm needs some extra coaxing from operators to get jobs done. But it's still collecting samples and data. It total, it's logged 22 miles across the Martian terrain. Not too shabby for a late model rover.

Here's a link to NASA's webpage of photos and information that Opportunity has collected over the years.


A plankton bloom: Not the new bloom off of Canada, but this is what it looks like. The green stuff in the water is sucking up carbon dioxide and doing ... we don't know exactly what else yet.
A plankton bloom: Not the new bloom off of Canada, but this is what it looks like. The green stuff in the water is sucking up carbon dioxide and doing ... we don't know exactly what else yet.Courtesy NASA
Have you ever wanted to change the world? Of course you have. Who hasn’t? Even JGordon, world renowned for being more or less satisfied with his immediate surroundings, keeps a list of Things I Will Change When I Am King.

Some sample items from the list:
31: No more cake pops. What a joke.
54: Round up the jerks, make them live on Jerk Island.
55: Make sure Jerk Island isn’t actually an awesome place to live.
70: Transform Lake Michigan into biggest ball pit. Cover dead fish with plastic balls.
115: More eyepatches.
262: Regulate burps.

I think you get the idea. As Tears for Fears almost said, everybody wants to change the world.

And we do change it. We change it in a huge way. Cumulatively, the tremendous force of the human race has drastically altered the face of the planet, from oceans to atmosphere. But a lot of that change is sort of accidental; we don’t mean to affect the acidity of the oceans or warm the atmosphere, but we like driving around, making things, using electricity, and all that, and the byproducts of these activities have global effects that we can’t always control.

The notion that we could control these effects is called geoengineering. So we’re accidentally causing global warming … what if we could engineer a global solution to actively cool the planet. We’re causing ocean acidification … what if we could chemically alter the oceans on purpose to balance it out? The trick would be to balance out the positive effects of geoengineering with the potential side effects … if we could even figure out what those side effects are.

Geoengineering is necessarily a really large-scale thing, so for the most part it’s been limited to theoretical projects. But it’s been pointed out that some geoengineering projects would be within the capabilities of not just international bodies or individual countries, but corporations or even wealthy individuals. The Science Museum of Minnesota even has an exhibit on just this possibility: What would you do if you had the wealth to literally change the world?

But there are rules against that sort of thing, and it’s potentially really, really dangerous. So no one would actually do it in the real world ever, right?


Apparently someone did do it. Back in July.

A guy named Russ George, in partnership with a First Nations village, is thought to have dumped about 100,000 kilograms of iron sulfate into the ocean off the Western Coast of Canada. Why iron sulfate? Because iron sulfate is an effective fertilizer for plankton, the microscopic plant-like things in the ocean. The idea is that if you could cause massive growth in plankton, the plankton would suck up a bunch of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere before dying and falling the ocean floor, taking the CO2 with it.

The first part of the plan seems to have worked: satellites have detected an artificial plankton bloom about 6,200 square miles large off the west coast of Canada (which is how the operation was discovered).

George was hoping to make money selling carbon credits gained from the CO2 captured by the plankton, and he convinced the First Nations group involved to put about a million dollars into the project, telling them that it was meant to help bolster the area’s salmon population.

The thing is, it’s really hard to say what dumping almost half a million pounds of iron sulfate into the ocean will do, besides capture some CO2. And, what’s more, it looks like it was illegal: conducted as it was, the operation violates the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity and the London convention on dumping wastes at sea. Whoops.

So does this spell the end for individually funded geoengineering projects? Or has George’s scheme just opened the door for similar operations?

And, more importantly, is this a good thing or a bad thing? Are people like George taking big steps toward addressing human-caused global change? Or are they creating what I like to call “Pandora’s Frankenstein*”?

Weigh in in the comments, and let us know what you think!

(*My friend Pandora has a pet chinchilla named Frankenstein, and he is horrible. I can’t wait until that chinchilla dies.)


Sensing Strain: This new system will allow you to detect strain anywhere, in any direction, and at any time.
Sensing Strain: This new system will allow you to detect strain anywhere, in any direction, and at any time.Courtesy Bruce Weisman
Scientists at Rice University developed a new type of paint, infused with carbon nanotubes, that can detect strain in bridges, buildings, and airplanes before the signs of deformation become visible to the naked eye.

This is how it works: The paint is applied to the desired structure and allowed to dry. A laser beam is then focused on the structure, which excites the carbon nanotubes, and in turn, causes them to fluoresce in a way that indicates strain. Finally, a handheld infrared spectrometer is used to measure this fluorescence.

The advantage of strain paint over conventional strain gauges is that the gauge (the paint, in this case) and the read-out device don't have to be physically connected. Also, strain paint allows you to measure strain anywhere on the structure, and along any direction. This product is not yet on the market, but it will benefit all of us, as I'm sure we all find the structural integrity of our planes, bridges, and buildings to be pretty important.


Plastics!Courtesy IonE
This is a couple weeks old, but I just noticed that the University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment (one of the Science Museum's partners on the Future Earth exhibit) has posted another "Big Question" video. These are short, fun videos that cover some of the challenges humans will be facing in the coming decades. This one is about plastics, and whether we can make them sustainable.

Anyway, here you are:

(And for more on the subject, check out Science Buzz posts on plastics, plastic, and sustainability.)


Carbon dioxide, you light up my life. Or you could, anyway, if this weirdo has his way. Said weirdo is biochemist Pierre Calleja, who has developed a light that can run on carbon dioxide rather than electricity. His secret: green algae that produce energy when they consume CO2.

The mucklight powerhouse: Gross.
The mucklight powerhouse: Gross.Courtesy Jim Conrad

One large lamp he installed in a parking garage consumes up to one ton of CO2 per year. While that's just a drop in the air--the US alone emits almost 5.5 thousand metric tons per year--just think how much these lamps could consume if we replaced all the streetlamps, parking ramp lights, and other environmental lamps with them. It sounds like a pretty great idea when you consider that CO2 is a major driver of global-scale changes in our climate. Whoda thunk we could tackle our warming climate by turning on the lights?


The future is now for some lucky Americans. The rest of us will have to wait and hope that someday soon our recycling trucks might also run on “trash gas.”

“Trash gas” is natural gas that is harvested from landfills where it is produced by the decomposition (breaking down) of organic waste. One future-thinking company, Waste Management Inc, now has over 1,000 trucks fueled by methane (a natural gas) that they collect from one of their very own California landfills.
I'd Rather be a Recycling Truck: A lucky 1000 Waste Management recycling trucks run on cleaner-burning natural gas (compared to conventional diesel).  Are more in the making?
I'd Rather be a Recycling Truck: A lucky 1000 Waste Management recycling trucks run on cleaner-burning natural gas (compared to conventional diesel). Are more in the making?Courtesy Tom Raftery

Natural gas can be used in vehicles in either a compressed or liquefied state. Waste Management’s trash gas trucks are about 50/50 compressed natural gas (CNG) and liquefied natural gas (LNG). You should check out those links, but to give you the gist of the idea here, imagine a balloon filled with natural gas. CGN is like squeezing that balloon. LGN is like cooling that balloon until the molecules inside condense into liquid like steam on a bathroom wall.

Why is this a BIG idea? CNG and LNG emit less carbon and nitrogen oxides into the atmosphere than diesel (the conventional fuel used by most large trucks). As you’ve probably heard, carbon dioxide is among the greenhouse gases contributing to global climate change. Meanwhile, nitrogen oxides contribute to smog, which is bad for your health besides being unsightly. Less is definitely more when it comes to carbon and nitrogen oxides.

As for more, Waste Management’s single currently operating LGN-generating landfill creates 13,000 gallons of LGN each day, which is enough to fuel 1,000 trucks. According to the primary source of this blog post, Waste Management has another landfill-turned-fuel station up for approval. With an additional 299 landfills and about 21,000 trucks, it might not be that long before a Waste Management “trash gas” truck comes rolling along your street.


Sweet Mongolian ice: What can't it do?
Sweet Mongolian ice: What can't it do?Courtesy Nswanson
Wait, JGordon!! Before we go any further, I have something to ask you.

Yes, JGordon?

How is ice our ancient friend?

Because it soothes our hot tempers, and it makes strong drinks more palatable.

And hotness? Why is it our enemy?

Because it makes us uncomfortable when we have it, and it makes us feel unattractive when we don’t.

I see. But don’t you think that was a long title for a blog post?

Maybe. Don’t you think that anyone whose time is at all valuable will have stopped reading by now because of this needless discussion?


OMG! What were we even talking about? I’m a little out of sorts because I was up all night killing the rats in my apartment. You think that’s weird? How about this: this morning, there were no dead rats to be found! It could be that they were only playing dead, or it could be that, like Obi-wan Kenobi, striking them down only caused them to become more powerful than I could possibly imagine, and also to vanish.

Or it could be that too much heat and not enough cooling ice in the apartment caused me to hallucinate the whole episode. However could that be remedied?

Well, the country of Mongolia has an idea. Or, more specifically, it’s capital city, Ulan Bator, and a local engineering firm have an idea: create mini-glaciers to place around the city. The idea behind the mini glaciers isn’t so much to prevent rat hallucinations (although that’s definitely a bonus) as it is to combat the effects of global warming and the city’s urban heat island (cities, with all their paved surfaces and heat-absorbing materials, tend to heat up more than the surrounding countryside). This could reduce the need for energy-hungry air conditioning in the city. The melting ice could potentially also be used to supplement the area’s drinking water and irrigation needs.

But how are the sons and daughters of the Great Khan going to pull this off? You can’t just hallucinate a gigantic block of ice into being. I should know.

The plan is to make a sort of mini-glacier naturally in the winter, using river ice. Typically, ice on a body of water won’t form more than a few feet thick, because at that point the ice itself insulates the water below from the cold above. But in situations where the water can be forced up through cracks or holes in the ice, it will form more ice on top, adding layers until the ice is many meters thick. These giant sheets of ice, called “naleds” or “aufeis” can last well into the following summer, as they slowly melt away.

The Mongolian engineers are planning on helping naled formation along by regularly drilling holes in river ice, so water can flow more freely up to be frozen. The block or blocks of ice produced will then be transported to the city, where they will … be cool, I guess.

The project will begin this winter, and if it’s successful, it could be a model for small-scale geoengineering (if that’s not an oxymoron) in northern cities as global climate warms. While glaciers and permafrost area will likely shrink, annual naled formation will continue. The project engineers think that naleds could also be used to actually repair areas of damaged (thawing) permafrost.

The articles on the project don’t get very specific on the size or placement of the naleds, but I suppose it’s also possible that, if they cover enough area, they would increase the city’s albedo—objects with high albedo reflect more light and absorb less of it, which means that they will heat up less in sunlight.

I’m afraid that my hot apartment hallucinations will force this project out of my memory by tomorrow, but it would have been interesting to see what sort of results come from it, and whether other countries pick the idea up as a cost effective method for dealing with rising summer temperatures. But I’ll leave that up to you, Buzzketeers. And to you, JGordon, my hot friend.


Have you ever wanted to get involved in scientific research, but figured you weren't qualified? It turns out that scientists need help from people like you all over the world. Citizen science has been a popular pastime for nerdy types for quite a while, and now, online projects are connecting citizen scientists using social media.

Spiral Galaxy: Citizen scientists sort through images like this one from the Hubble Space Telescope at Galaxy Zoo.
Spiral Galaxy: Citizen scientists sort through images like this one from the Hubble Space Telescope at Galaxy Zoo.Courtesy NASA

What is citizen science, you ask? It takes many forms, but the ultimate goal is for normal folks like you and me to lend our time and abilities to scientists--to collect data, tag birds, photograph species--the list goes on. Amateurs help scientists by extending their observational reach--a network of 40 citizens all over the country can make more observations than 2-3 scientists in one location. They also help scientists by performing simple tasks that can be time-consuming but don't ultimately require specialized training.

Whether you're interested in plants, animals, climate, weather, pollution, or astronomy, there are plenty of ways to get involved--Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Citizen Science Central is a clearinghouse of citizen science projects. Some examples include:

You can even use your computer to model climate change. In these projects, it's important to follow directions from the scientists, to make sure your data and other contributions are usable. But no matter how you get involved, it's a great way to help develop a better understanding of the world around us, which helps pave the way for a better future.


Boom!Courtesy sfllaw
Word on the street is that the world may be ending on Saturday. Unfortunately, I’m not sure exactly when—I’m not keyed into the ins and outs of religious fear mongering enough to make an exact calculation—so I can’t tell you if you should cancel your lunch date, or if you’ve got until midnight to continue doing whatever it is you do. Jigsaw puzzles? Hard drugs? Far be it from me to judge.

And, you know, normally I’d dismiss this as an organization’s or individual’s effort to gain attention through a frightening claim that has no basis in reality, but … watermelons are freaking exploding in China!

Whatever holy scripture this May 21st thing was extrapolated from, I guarantee there’s a passage in there along the lines of, “And in the east, melons shall burst on the vine. Their shells will rupture, and tiny seeds shall fly forth. Juice will be everywhere.” I mean, it would fit, right? This is the sort of thing that always happens before the end of the world! How am I going to explain this to my cat?!

Now, some folks—I’ll call them unbelievers—insist that the exploding melons actually aren’t bursting from anxiety over the imminent end of everything they care about. Instead, they say that they’re bursting because of a lazy farming technique, where a chemical called forchlorfenuron has been over applied. Forchlorfer… whatever, causes increased cell division in fruit, and is sprayed on watermelons and their ilk to get bigger, faster growing fruit. The resulting watermelons can be oddly shaped, and don’t taste all that great, but they’re supposed to be harmless to humans. And, apparently, they can explode.

Now, generally we keep an open mind regarding fertilizers and high-yield farming techniques around here, but this is a good example of the hazards of wily-nily application of chemicals to farms. (Assuming, for the sake of argument, that this isn’t a symptom of the apocalypse.) If there’s no significant nutritional gain, it seems kind of crazy. And if this chemical is causing explosion in the crop it’s supposed to help, it makes one wonder what its effect will be when it’s absorbed in the soil or washed off the fields (and into other vegetation). And there’s the question of whether farmers should be allowed to do this. And what the market conditions are that make them want to/need to use chemicals like forchlorfenuron. And if there’s a benefit to using it in any situations.

But that’s all probably very complicated, and should only be considered by people who don’t believe that the world is on its way out. Me? I’m not even going to brush my teeth before Saturday.