Stories tagged History and Nature of Science


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.

Project Kaisei
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
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.

LOBO's launch in the Columbia River: Watch video
LOBO's launch in the Columbia River: Watch videoCourtesy CMOP

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.

Sample reading from LOBO: The figure on the left shows a sample reading from LOBO of the levels of CDOM and dissolved oxygen from January 1 to January 5, 2009. The figure on the right plots hourly readings of water quality.
Sample reading from LOBO: The figure on the left shows a sample reading from LOBO of the levels of CDOM and dissolved oxygen from January 1 to January 5, 2009. The figure on the right plots hourly readings of water quality.Courtesy CMOP

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.


What would you do with a grain of sand, salty water, a baby seed, and a blow of hot air?

Create a regeneration of life: POOF. This year calls for hotter, brighter, and drier times – and the more, the better.

The Sahara Forest Project Presto: This is the design plan. The project will not necessarily take place in the Sahara desert. The name “Sahara” is Arabic for desert.
Presto: This is the design plan. The project will not necessarily take place in the Sahara desert. The name “Sahara” is Arabic for desert.Courtesy Courtesy Sahara Forest Project
is utilizing arid landscapes such as deserts across the world, direct sunlight, and saltwater in hopes for a change from the global climate crisis.

The project is essentially a gigantic greenhouse. It uses hot desert air and cool seawater to make fresh water for growing crops, solar energy to generate power, planting trees to capture greenhouse gases and restore natural forest canopy, and algae pools to offer renewable biomass fuels. The ultimate goal is to replicate nature in reforestation and revegetation by using desert land to aid in the production of food, water, energy, and new jobs you and your coconscious can feel good about.

The mission is created by scientists, engineers, and research experts from Exploration Architecture, Seawater Greenhouse, Max Fordham Consulting Engineers and the Bellona Foundation. The final proposal was presented at the United Nations Climate Conference in Copenhagen in 2009, and is under construction for 2010 across multiple demonstration centers. The Sahara Forest Project was also chosen out of 300 projects for presentation at The Clinton Global Initiative. So far these magnificent designs are anticipated to build demonstration facilities in arid regions ranging from the United States to Australia, Africa, and the Middle East.

Threats on the stability of our ecosystems, natural resources, and human survival for generations to come have pushed science harder than ever. Here are some of the environmental crises we face:
• Freshwater shortage
• Climbing greenhouse gas emissions
• Non-renewable energy decay
• Non-sustainable food production
• Biomass fuel for non-renewable (i.e. fossil fuels) energy shortages

A Connection to Minnesotans
The University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment is tackling a much related and pressing climate issue of our time: “The Global Crisis in Agriculture.” The agriculture crisis investigates solutions for population growth, food consumption, energy costs, and biomass production. The Institute’s top researchers, faculty, and students are calling for collaboration and communication initiatives across all sectors – from agribusinesses to experts, students to farmers, policy makers to you.

The Institute’s magazine Momentum, published three times a year at the University of Minnesota, holds articles on emerging research being held at the Institute, as well as interconnected studies from scientists and experts. In the latest issue for fall 2009, the Institute addresses the big question: how do we feed a growing population at the expense of future human survival? It all boils down to the impact we humans have on our natural resources. Perhaps the Sahara project sheds some light.

Here’s how it works:
Seawater to freshwater:
Greenhouses use hot desert air and saltwater to create freshwater. The process mimics a natural process. Sun-cooked seawater evaporates, cools to form clouds, and then falls as precipitation:
1) Hot, bone-dry air goes into the greenhouse.
2) It is first cooled and dampened by seawater.
(This moist air nourishes crops growing inside the greenhouse)
3) The air then passes through an evaporator, where sun-roasted saltwater flows. The warm, wet air meets a series of tubes containing cool seawater, it evaporates into fresh water squeezes as droplets on the outsides of the tubes and can be stored.

Greenhouse Gas Emission Reduction:
Engineers plan for only 10 to 15 percent of the moist air in the “seawater to freshwater” period gets condensed into fresh water. The rest goes outside to water surrounding, planted trees.

Solar Power Energy:
1) Mirrors are constructed to focus sunlight on water pipes and boilers.
2) The intense sunlight creates superhot vapor inside the pipes that can power conventional steam turbines to generate electricity.
3) Any excess power will be used in local communities.
Standing Ovation: The center will heavily concentrate solar power.
Standing Ovation: The center will heavily concentrate solar power.Courtesy National Geographic

Algae Ponds into Biomass Fuel:
1) Open saltwater ponds cultivate algae through photosynthesis.
2) The algae's fat oils are then be harvested as energy-rich biomass fuel.

Gobble Gobble: "Lab-grown algae have been shown to generate up to 30 times more oil per acre than other plants used to make biofuels,” according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
Gobble Gobble: "Lab-grown algae have been shown to generate up to 30 times more oil per acre than other plants used to make biofuels,” according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.Courtesy Courtesy National Geographic
Plus, the foundation’s engineers and creator stress that this biomass-based fuel from the center's photonic energy would be potentially easy to export. (Unlike current biomass fuel production, the great science predicament is how to mobilize and store the biofuels). What has been created is a micro-climate that is nourishing for food and biomass production.

Sustaining Local Communities:
The Sahara Forest Project is also necessitating the use of local community. The project would rely on local people to maintain the complexes.

Altogether, it's a pretty huge deal. Of course there are apprehensions and counter-perspectives. Some say this will be very limiting. Others advocate for the fact that at least we're thinking of new alternatives. It's sustainable. It's restorative. What harm can come from this?

You can also find additional articles about the Sahara Forest Project on their website, National Geographic, Bellona Foundation, or simply by Google search.


Removing plant oil: Ok, she isnt removing plant oil from a Dead Sea Scroll, but this is how I imagine it would look when they eventually do.
Removing plant oil: Ok, she isnt removing plant oil from a Dead Sea Scroll, but this is how I imagine it would look when they eventually do.Courtesy Walters Art Museum
The Dead Sea Scrolls have been radiocarbon dated two different times since they were discovered (excludiing the test on a piece of linen associated with the scrolls in the 1950’s by Willard Libby(the guy who invented the radiocarbon dating method)) by the Zurich Institute of Technology (1990) and the University of Arizona (1994). From these tests, researchers concluded that the scrolls are roughly 2,000 years old. However, scientists now think they can take “roughly” out of the picture, and provide more precise dates for the origins of the scrolls.

How would they do this? Is there a brand new method used for dating ancient objects?! Umm…no. Scientists will still use carbon-14 dating, but they found that a good ol’ scrub before the dating process provides better results (that usually holds true for people, too). I don’t mean that they’ll use soap and water (that would probably not be a good idea), but rather a chemical to remove plant residue. What happened was that in order to unroll the scrolls and spread them out without pulverizing them, researchers treated the scrolls with plant oil. This oil is thought to have interfered with the carbon-14 dating.

But now, after more than ten years of lab work, archaeochemist Kaare Lund Rasmussen and his team of researchers have developed a chemical that will remove the plant oil without harming the scrolls themselves. With this residue gone, the Dead Sea Scrolls can be more precisely dated, and history can be more accurately written (if you subscribe to the “accuracy” of history). At this point, there has been no new round of tests on the scrolls, and it’s unclear when that will take place.


How does food matter to human evolution? We could ask this guy?
How does food matter to human evolution? We could ask this guy?Courtesy Lord Jim
What makes human beings so special? How did we evolve into an agriculture-developing, city-building, history-making, world-changing species that can live on every continent and even in outer space?

Scientists have been asking questions about our evolutionary trajectory and human "uniqueness" for as long as there's been science - and guess what? We still don't know the answer! Some of our best theories are explored by anthropologists in the PBS television series The Human Spark, airing throughout the month and also online at the PBS website. If you're curious, you might want to watch, but don't do it on an empty stomach! Many of the theories that anthropologists have developed to explain how we became human involve food.

That food and evolution would go hand in hand is not really surprising, since food is necessary to survival and an important and dynamic part of our environment. Did a search for nutritious plants and animals lead our ancestors to new environments, causing our species to adapt and change? Did hunting and eating meat mean the evolution of new physical characteristics? How has agriculture changed our environment and species over time? How will present and future foods change what it means to be human in the future?

Some evolutionary theories involving food look not just at what we ate, but how we ate it - namely the invention of fire and the use of heat to cook food. Think about it: our Hominid ancestors needed calories in order to develop into the big-brained humans we all know and love. How did they do it? And what did this mean for human evolution?

Sure, eating meat was an important dietary step, but cooking root vegetables can transform hard-to-chew or even poisonous plant parts into nutritious food that can be consumed out of season. With cooking, environments that would otherwise provide few nutritious options suddenly become bountiful. This change in diet may also have led to changes in body size and shape - even social structures! Large teeth and jaws were less desirable once food could be more easily chewed, and delaying the gratification of food until it could be cooked may also have meant that our species had to develop new social skills.

Those social skills - the same ones that mean you and I can now share a burger or beer without fighting each other for scraps - may be one of many "sparks" that makes us human.

If you live in the Twin Cities, you can meet an anthropologist and here how he thinks food impacted human evolution by attending tonight's Cafe Scientifique program in Minneapolis.


WaveLengths, the award-winning public television program from Arizona Public Media updates viewers on what was once the most talked-about experiment in the world--the Biosphere 2 in Oracle, Arizona.

Biosphere 2: New TV program takes you inside Biosphere 2.
Biosphere 2: New TV program takes you inside Biosphere 2.Courtesy Biosphere 2

"WaveLengths: Planet in a Bottle" revisits the famous life sciences laboratory to learn about the research currently being conducted inside, and exactly how it can help find answers to environmental questions arising in the new millennium. This new episode of WaveLengths includes research and work televised for the very first time.

(See a preview here.)

"WaveLengths: Planet in a Bottle" premieres Monday, January 18 at 6:30pm on PBS-HD Channel 6.

Segments include:
  • Two years and 20 minutes: Jayne Poynter is one of eight "Biospherians" who were sealed inside the artificial environment for a little over two years. Poynter talks about the challenges the team faced as they grew their own food and recycled their air and water within the immense greenhouse. The problems with living extensively in a sealed environment, says Poynter, were not all environment-related.
  • Biosphere 2's future: The management of this unique structure and its surrounding campus was assumed by The University of Arizona in 2007 now scientists from Arizona and around the world use this remarkable facility to find solutions for understanding climate change and other global problems that threaten the planet. WaveLengths Host Dr. Vicki Chandler takes a walk with Biosphere 2 Director Travis Huxman to talk about the relevancy of the new research going on in the largest sealed facility on Earth.
  • High tech rainforest: How are plants and forests responding to the changing environmental conditions on Earth? Dr. Kolbe Jardine is one researcher using a hi-tech chemistry lab in conjunction with Biosphere 2's rainforest biome to learn more about plant interactions.
  • Critical ocean viruses: The invisible life of the ocean--its microbes--is as critical to other ocean life as plants and trees are to the land. The artificial ocean of Biosphere 2 is now helping scientists discover what kind of impact climate change can have on the ocean's microbial life. Researcher Matt Sullivan is focusing on this invisible life to help us better understand the crucial role it plays in ocean productivity, and the overall health of our planet.
  • Climate change and vegetation shifts: Some regions in North America are seeing rapid vegetation transformations because of invasive species. Here in the Southwest, the invasion of the non-native bufflegrass could change our desert landscape forever, and a better understanding of why these changes are taking place in relation to climate change is happening inside Biosphere 2.

After some three and a half billion years of life’s evolution on this planet – and after almost two million years since people recognizable as human first walked its surface – a new human burst upon the scene, apparently unannounced.

It was us.

Until then our ancestors had shared the planet with other human species. But soon there was only us, possessors of something that gave us unprecedented power over our environment and everything else alive. That something was – is – the Human Spark.

What is the nature of human uniqueness? Where did the Human Spark ignite, and when? And perhaps most tantalizingly, why?

In a three-part series to be broadcast on PBS in 2010, Alan Alda takes these questions personally, visiting with dozens of scientists on three continents, and participating directly in many experiments – including the detailed examination of his own brain.

"The Human Spark"

Twin Cities area show dates and times:

  • Wednesday, January 6, 7:00 pm, on 2
  • Thursday, January 7, 1:00 am, on 2
  • Thursday, January 7, 3:00 pm, on LIFE
  • Wednesday, January 13, 7:00 pm, on 2
  • Thursday, January 14, 1:00 am, on 2
  • Thursday, January 14, 3:00 pm, on LIFE
  • Wednesday, January 20, 7:00 pm, on 2
  • Thursday, January 21, 1:00 am, on 2
  • Thursday, January 21, 3:00 pm, on LIFE
  • Sunday, January 24, 1:00 pm, on 2
  • Sunday, January 24, 2:00 pm, on 2
  • Sunday, January 24, 3:00 pm, on 2

"Our Origins: Exploring the Human Spark"

Twin Cities area show dates and times:

  • Sunday, January 24, 4:00 pm, on 2
  • Sunday, January 24, 8:00 pm, on MN
  • Sunday, January 31, 12:00 pm, on LIFE

Ardipithecus ramidus skull recreation: a composite image of Ardi's skull recreated with imaging technology
Ardipithecus ramidus skull recreation: a composite image of Ardi's skull recreated with imaging technologyCourtesy Tmkeesey
Move over Lucy, there is a new hominid in town. Her name is Ardi. One could say Ardipithecus ramidus to be formal. She is a 4.4 million year old ancestor of ours and nearly a million years older than Lucy (Australopithecus afarensis). She is by far the most complete of all the older hominids. Researchers have recovered feet, a leg and pelvis, hands and lower arm, along with the majority of a skull and its teeth. As an added bonus, parts of nearly three dozen more specimens were recovered during the work in the Western Afar Rift of northeastern Ethiopia. This is the same region that gave us Lucy and some early Homo species.
map of Ethiopia: the Middle Awash rift area runs northeast from Addis Ababa
map of Ethiopia: the Middle Awash rift area runs northeast from Addis AbabaCourtesy Yodod

Ardi and her kin walked upright, although their gait was debatably awkward. She retained an opposable toe which could still be used to grasp tree branches, but the remainder of the foot was built for the ground. Like later hominids, the teeth reveal a modern structure and lack enlarged canines. Her pelvis is a mosaic between chimps and Lucy. The Ilium developed short and broad more like a human, while the lower pelvis remains similar to a chimp. Ardi’s skull shows that her brain was still the size of a chimp, being smaller than Lucy’s. Its shape, however was more hominid and had begun evolve more advanced functions.

Unlike Lucy in her savannah habitat, Ardi roamed lush but temperate woodlands. More than 150,000 plant and animal fossils were recovered from the sites. Included are 20 new species of small mammals along with monkeys, antelope, elephants, and multitudes of birds. This was a much different environment than that of the savannah. Theories of the development of bipedalism on the open grasslands will be challenged now because of Ardi and her habitat.

This isn’t a recent find. The original excavations of the search teams started in 1992. But years of field work followed by more than a decade of lab time have really unearthed a mass of data about this time and place in history. 47 diverse researchers from all over the world have included excerpts of their findings about Ardi and her environment. The October 2009 special issue of the publication Science details the discovery and ongoing analysis of this latest find in the continuing quest to uncover the origins of man. With debate well underway, I’m positive we’ll all continue to learn more about our past.

more on Hominid evolution

Full story

Podcast with author Ann Gibbons


Poop with flies: you always manage to find a few of these guys on the pile.
Poop with flies: you always manage to find a few of these guys on the pile.Courtesy PKmousie
Poop. Poop. Poop. Poop. There. Have I got your attention? Of course, who can resist a story on poop? It is such a widely discussed topic with a vast array of monikers. Probably not a decent topic of conversation for invited guests or the dinner table, but it does get its chat time. Despite the disgust that it truly is, there is a curious fascination with the whole matter. It can tell you about your health, especially if you have the runs. It can tell you if you’ve been chewing your food well, or if you need to lay off the cheese. If you are a proper biologist, you’ve probably bent down and touched it or even broke it up to examine what passed. Certain scientists, such as Scatologists pursue the study of scat (poop) as a means to tell us more about a certain animal’s habits. If by the Fates, a poo survives intact and becomes old enough to fossilize, then we would call it a coprolite. Coprolites have been recovered from dinosaurs, ancient whales, fish, and prehistoric mammals to name a few.Coprolite: one very old poo
Coprolite: one very old pooCourtesy AlishaV

Recent news from BBC detailed a story about scientists studying the ancient droppings from mammoths. Well sort of. The researchers were examining mud deposits from a lake for fungal spores that are produced in large herbivore dung (mammoth poo). Their research concludes that the extra large mammals of the recent past experienced a slow and steady decline starting about 15,000 years ago. This flies in the face of the current prevailing theory, that an asteroid impact about 12,900 years ago caused global upheaval, world spread wildfire, and then abrupt extinction of the mega mammals. The asteroid theory had already been under assault by lack of evidence in soil samples. Samples taken all over the continent in soil cores extracted from peat bogs and lake bottoms.
Mammoth: artistic re-creation
Mammoth: artistic re-creationCourtesy ecstaticist
Was early man really responsible for the start of the downfall of the mammoth? I think undoubtedly we had a hand in their fate, but the answer is most likely multifaceted. Taking a closer look at the dung heaps of the past may well continue to give us a better picture of paleohistory. Just watch where you step!

mammoth dung story

mammoth comet story

Nice story on a recent find of a baby mammoth"

General Mammoth info