Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Post by Vijayalakshmi “Viji” Kalyanaraman

Why should laboratory science capture the attention of the general public and the politicians? Why is it important these days?

Contemporary societies rely heavily on science and technology for everyday life, economic growth, political stability and social well-being. Science influences everything we do as human beings. It is extremely important to arrive at good science policies for the betterment of the society. First of all, for the policy makers to make informed decisions, they should be able to gather the scientific information easily. In the democratic society, not only policy makers are involved in making decisions but also the general public plays a significant role. Therefore citizens also need to understand how science is linked to society in order to provide sensible input to policy makers. To reach out to both the communities, effective science communication is the key. It is the way the populous and the politicians will be able to grasp the issues that require attention and understand the personal and behavioral changes required for living in the 21st century.

Successful communication depends on who is receiving the message.  Whereas the public is interested in how the science would affect them and their life, politicians would be interested in cost related issues and how the other entities in the society, as industries and other businesses would be affected. Scientists often discuss about their research to their fellow scientists but seldom to non-scientists. Many times the interaction between the three concerned parties (scientists, politicians and the public) is insufficient or non-existent. This is not a healthy situation to be sustained. Hence it becomes essential to talk about the motives and benefits of the science to the public and talk about political interest and economic issues as well to policy makers effectively that would facilitate a three-way conversation among the three parties.

There are numerous subjects that connect scientists with policy makers and the public. Environmental sustainability, climate changes, healthcare, clean energy, biodiversity, agriculture – these are only a few from the long list of topics linking science with society and policy makers intricately.

Al Gore, the former vice-president of the United States who had won the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for his contributions to understanding global warming, delivered a speech at the annual meeting of American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and is worth listening. It is a fine example of how he addressed both politicians and the citizens in illustrating the issue and his research.

On one side, he was able to attract the public as he was able to relate global warming to the everyday life of the people. He was able to articulate his ideas to make an interesting story about global warming showing good examples filled with a pinch of humor. On the other side, he could influence the policy makers as he himself was a politician and had good connections with his fellow politicians; he also laid out that global warming is a global issue which needs the attention of policy makers and how can the government help alleviate the problem.

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Post by Minna Krejci

I first learned of Yucca Mountain when I was in college.  But it wasn’t a discussion about politics amongst friends or a presidential campaign that introduced me to the topic, and to the controversy.

It was a class, on materials science and engineering.  We were discussing corrosion, and my professor was a corrosion expert who happened to be involved with the Yucca Mountain project.  He was part of a team that was investigating the role of engineered barriers in waste isolation — in other words, they wanted to see how the passing of time and changes in the environment would affect the ability of a waste canister to completely contain radioactive waste.  It was an interesting problem in science and engineering, to consider what could possibly happen over time… and to design materials that would be resistant to forces that threaten to degrade the canister, potentially allowing hazardous radioactive waste to leach out into the surrounding environment.

And what did they find out?  I’m not sure how far they got, because the funding to develop the Nevada site as a repository for spent nuclear reactor fuel and high level radioactive waste was cut a few years later (in 2010 I believe).  Many Nevada residents and politicians opposed the project, partially because they felt it was unfair to have other states’ waste dumped in their state, and also due to safety and environmental concerns.

Although extensive scientific studies consistently showed Yucca Mountain to be a sound site for nuclear waste disposal, the Yucca Mountain repository program has been marred in political controversy since the site was selected in 1986.  The recent Fukushima incident in Japan has reignited much of the controversy surrounding the program’s termination, as a reminder that storing nuclear waste at nuclear reactor sites (as is often currently the case) may not be the safest option, and a viable alternative to the Yucca Mountain repository project has not really been identified.

What I find to be one of the most interesting (and disconcerting) aspects of the whole situation is that science and politics don’t seem to be getting along terribly well.  For example, a report released in April 2011 by the United States Government Accountability Office states that the project was terminated based on social and political issues, and not due to technical or safety issues.  At a hearing yesterday, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko came under attack regarding his role in the death of the program: according to Representative Joe Pitts, “It appears that Chairman Jaczko has let politics trump science here, that he’s manipulated the process.”

There is no doubt that social and political issues are important in a case like this, and scientific results certainly can’t be considered in a vacuum and in the absence of other such considerations.  The tricky part is incorporating the scientific, societal, and political issues into the decision-making process in order to come up with a solution that appears to have the most merit overall.  Science tends to show up in political arguments fairly often these days — but are the politics supporting the science, or is the science supporting the politics?  It makes me nervous to hear statements like “politics trump science” — are politics and science competing?

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By Ruthanna Gordon

A wave of scalding plasma rises from the surface of the sun.  As it plunges back down, gaseous droplets the size of the Earth splash the surface.  Some of the material actually reaches escape velocity, plummeting outward at 1100 kilometers per second.  It will reach us late Thursday or early Friday.  And then…?

Probably most people won’t even notice.  Such is the odd relationship between the sun’s drama and everyday life on Earth.  Wednesday’s coronal mass injection, spectacular enough to draw gasps from solar watchers around the globe, may cause mild interference with satellite radio, or slightly boost the power of the northern lights.  But 150 million kilometers is a long way, and the blast wasn’t aimed directly at us—it will brush our magnetosphere only in passing before continuing on its way.

This blasé attitude may be a luxury.  The sun is becoming more active as it approaches the peak of its 11-year cycle.  Of course, we’ve been through this before—in the early 2000s, for example.  It’s not a catastrophe.  But some peak events can be more impressive than others.  In 1859, a massive solar storm actually set telegraph wires on fire!  Auroras were visible as far south as Hawaii and as far north as Chile.  The Carrington Event, named for the astronomer who documented it, caused surges in electrical activity of all types.

Today, such surges would be far more disruptive.  Our electrical grid is much larger, more closely networked, and more vital.  Our little local storms can take out small portions of the grid, causing blackouts that last for hours, or in the worst case days.  A Carrington repeat, disrupting the grid across the board, could leave people without power for weeks or months.

There are things we can do to minimize the risk.  Although solar weather forecasting is still primitive—about where planetary forecasting was a couple of decades ago—it does exist.  And 150 million kilometers is a long way, so we’d be likely to have some warning.  Deliberately shutting down transformers would cause temporary blackouts, but protect our electrical infrastructure while the storm rolled safely past.  Even so, anything depending on internet access or satellite communications—medical records, for example, or your ability to buy anything except with cash—would be disrupted.

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Open Question

What interesting art and science news have you seen recently?  Let us know.

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Post by Henderson

In a move to more directly combat the growth of obesity and provide average households with a common sense approach to eating a well balanced diet, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) unveiled its newest version of the food pyramid last week called MyPlate.

On June 2, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, First Lady Michelle Obama, and US Surgeon General Rebecca Benjamin presented the new graphic resulting from the 2010 release of the federal government’s evidence-based nutritional guidance.

The new graphic splits a plate into four sections.  Fruits, vegetables, grains, and meat each receive a quarter of the plate, and on the side is small helping of dairy.  You’ll notice that desert is conspicuously missing.

USDA's new food "pyramid" provides common sense balance to meal portioning.

The new website, ChooseMyPlate.gov includes tips and resources, from what types of grains to eat, to physical activities, to ideas about a balanced vegetarian diet.

The guide was created to provide simple ways to promote health, reduce occurrences of chronic diseases, and reduce the growing numbers of obesity.  It also addresses a general confusion about what types of food constitute a healthy diet and in what daily proportions–a confusion that has existed since the first food pyramid was introduced in 1992.

1992 version of the USDA food pyramid.

Mrs. Obama’s speech addressed the oft-mundane practice of measuring proportions.

“Parents don’t have the time to measure out exactly 3 ounces of chicken or to look up how much rice or broccoli is in a serving,” Obama said. “But we do have time to take a look at our kids’ plates,” she said. “We do it all the time. We usually are the ones fixing the plates. And as long as they’re eating proper portions, as long as half of their meal is fruits and vegetables alongside their lean proteins, whole grains and low-fat dairy, then we’re good. It’s as simple as that. That’s how easy this can be for parents.”

A few of the suggestions the website gives are as follow:

Balancing calories:

  • Enjoy your food, but eat less
  • Avoid oversized proportions

Foods to increase:

  • Make half of your plate fruits and vegetables
  • Make at least half of your grains whole grains
  • Switch to fat-free or low-fat (1%) milk

Foods to reduce:

  • Compare sodium in foods like soup, bread, and frozen meals ― and choose the foods with lower numbers
  • Drink water instead of sugary drinks.

Combating Obesity:

Only time will tell whether MyPlate will succeed in decreasing  obesity.  There are still a number of factors that stand in the way of a healthy diet.

Obesity is defined as a Body Mass Index (BMI) of more than 30.  In general, a high BMI puts one at greater risk of cardiovascular disease, certain types of cancer, and type 2 diabetes.  Reasons for obesity can range from genetic and metabolic factors to an imbalance in the diet and exercise routine.

If you’re curious about your BMI, use this online calculator.

The government has been keeping its eye on obesity for some time.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has tracked obesity trends over the last 20 years and found a dramatic increase in the period between 1985 and 2009.

In 2009 numbers, nine states (Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and West Virginia) had obesity levels equal to or over 30%.  In the same period, Colorado and the District of Columbia had less than a 20% occurrence of obesity.

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Post by Henderson

Engineering mixes many disciplines, from mathematics to art to economics, to respond to the needs of growing societies.  As populations grow, needs of infrastructures change, and new ideas bring forth new challenges, engineers work in large or small teams to find solutions to these problems.

The idea of human engineering starts with the idea that the body is a machine.  A machine that can be understood, repaired, and if need-be, parts replaced.  This is not a new idea and has existed in greater or smaller ways since Rene Descartes wrote about the mind-body duality.  Separating the body into an automatic as a machine in his description of the human body.  But what Descartes contemporaries did not have were the tools needed to understand how the body works.

The human body is an efficient collection of complex systems.  As an example, something as simple as taking a walk requires the coordination of, at least, the skeletal, muscular, nervous, and cardiovascular systems.

When something goes awry in those systems, when the body is not responding the way it should given normal conditions, changes can be made to improve the way it works.  Sometimes this improvement can be made by physical training or changes to the diet of the individual.  But failing these, more invasive methods are employed to correct the problem.

Today’s engineers are faced with more than the idea that the body is a machine.  They are faced with a growing body of knowledge that gives them the tools to transplant hearts, implant electrodes into the brain, and even manipulate the genome to create favorable outcomes.

One of the biggest stories to hit the news in the last few years are surprisingly small.

The J. Craig Venter Institute announced last year the creation of a synthetic and self-replicating bacterial cell.  The synthetic cell is called Mycoplasma mycoides JCVI-syn1.0 and is the proof of principle that genomes can be designed in the computer, chemically made in the laboratory and transplanted into a recipient cell to produce a new self-replicating cell controlled only by the synthetic genome.

In this example, Venter’s lab has proven that we can mechanize the process of problem-solving on a cellular level.  Their work is adding to the public sphere a body of knowledge that will enhance the understanding of basic chemical and biological concepts and be integral to the production of new vaccines and medicines, amongst other things.

If there is a promise that could come from advances such as this, it is that we can treat the body and its most basic properties in a machine-like way.  In the end making it possible to provide basic research that enhances the human experience.

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Posted by Henderson

Here’s a riddle:

It’s present everywhere, but occupies no space.

We can measure it, but we can’t see it, touch it,  get  rid  of  it,  or  put it  in  a container.

Everyone knows what it is and uses it every day, but no one has been able to define it.

We can spend it, save it, waste it, or kill it,  but  we  can’t  destroy  it  or  even change it, and there’s never any more or less of it

What is it?  Time.

Today, most of us depend less on the cycles of the moon than we do on clocks.  Digital displays help us keep track of everything from how long a turkey has been in the oven to what time to be at work.  But with all of the advances in the study of time over the last century, we still don’t know much more about it than did our early ancestors.

But we are getting a little closer to that understanding.

Research published by the National Institutes of Standards and Technology shows that there is a link between time and gravity.  In a test of Einstein’s theory of relativity, researchers using two super accurate optical clocks placed one above the other and proved that the clock on the bottom ticked nanoseconds slower than the one above it.

The clocks are based on the oscillations of a single aluminum ion that vibrates between two energy levels a million billion times per second. One clock is accurate to within one second in about 3.7 billion years, and the other is almost as accurate, NIST says.

The clock on the bottom ticked slower, basically, because it is closer to the Earth’s gravitational field and thus “felt” more gravity.

But what are some applications of this knowledge?  Any ideas?

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Post by Ruthanna Gordon

Perhaps the most notable thing about time is that we notice it.  This may seem unimpressive at first, but think about it.  We don’t notice most of what happens in the universe.  Infrared, ultraviolet, and microwave radiation pass our eyes without a blip.  Magnetic fields pulse and fade.  But time is something that we perceive—without even having a sense set aside for it.

The most studied area in the psychology of time is our perception of the past.  Human  memory is complex and surprisingly fickle.  If you’ve ever gotten into a He Said/She Said argument, you know that people recall events in ways that make them look good, even at the cost of accuracy.  And when we’re very stressed—for example, just after witnessing a crime—we unthinkingly fill in memory gaps with whatever other people claim to have seen.

Even with their flaws, our memories do a lot for us.  Memory helps you keep track of who and what you are.  It helps you keep track of other people’s personalities, so that you learn who and when to trust.  It lets you improve your handling of a situation the second, third, and three thousandth time you encounter it.

The psychology of the future seems like it should be a fuzzier thing.  When we plan and daydream, we imagine many different possibilities.  We consider different ways of asking for a raise tomorrow, or fantasize about remote chances years away.  But it turns out that memory and planning are, in many ways, really the same thing.

Over the last several years, psychologists have begun to examine future thinking in detail.  What they’ve learned is that it draws heavily on memory.  Want to know what the future will be like?  In many cases, it will be like the past.  When it’s not, past patterns may still be useful in guessing at the differences.  Planning your next party lights up the same brain areas that spark when you reminisce about your last one.  These abilities, more and more frequently, are grouped together as “mental time travel.”

In the mind, the past and the future intertwine more closely than anyone guessed.  People with amnesia often have trouble creating a detailed image of the future.  People who give vague answers (“I always do badly at math”) when asked about specific events (“Tell me about the last time you took a test”) are prone to equally vague fears about the future, and to depression.  And some skills—a vivid imagination, social modeling, and mental mapping—extend our reach beyond the present and allow it to flourish in both directions.

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Post by Minna Krejci

Quiz time: What do Donnie Darko, Star Trek, A Wrinkle in Time, Contact, and Stargate have in common?

I’ll give you a hint:

"Wormhole" painting by the artist Andrew Leipzig (http://blog.onlineclock.net/wormholes-as-time-machines/).


The concept of the wormhole is popular in science fiction — wormholes make it possible to travel across the universe within the span of a human lifetime.  (To put things into perspective: if we traveled at the fastest speed recorded by a manmade object — set by the Helios 2 spacecraft at 150,000 miles/hr — it would take us 19,000 years to get to the closest star to our solar system, Proxima Centauri, 4.22 light years from Earth.)

Wormholes provide a shortcut through space and time.  While wormholes have never actually been observed outside of science fiction, the theory of general relativity allows for the existence of these kinds of structures.  We can visualize “spacetime” as a 2D sheet bent back on itself, with a wormhole “bridge” connecting two distant regions:

Recent calculations suggest that advanced civilizations might be able to make wormholes work by using something called “exotic matter,” which has a negative energy, to prevent a wormhole from collapsing on itself.  If such “traversable” wormholes exist, then they hypothetically could allow for time travel.  (Just hypothetically, at least for now.)

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Post by Ruthanna Gordon

On-line and interactive is an interesting way to learn about science. But it can also be a useful—if uncomfortable—way to do science.

When most people think about science, they think about lab work: setting up equipment, running experiments, and gathering data. But science is also what happens afterward. Once data is collected and written up, the research usually undergoes peer review. This is not a complicated process. Journal editors send an article out to other researchers (usually 3), and ask them to comment on its merits. Reviewers can ask for further explanation, or additional studies to rule out competing explanations for the findings. Sometimes they decide that the study wasn’t sufficiently well-done to share with the wider public at all; more often they demand changes that make for stronger, if somewhat delayed, published work.

The Peer Review Process

Many researchers have questioned the peer review process. Reviewers may be biased, positively or negatively. They may miss problems because they are caught up in the excitement of an interesting finding, because they are distracted by their own studies, or because they are fitting the review into 37 free minutes at 2 AM. As Winston Churchill said of democratic government, it’s the worst possible system, except for all the others we’ve tried. But the collaborative hothouse of the internet opens up new possibilities.

These possibilities were highlighted late last year, when NASA-funded scientist Felisa Wolfe-Simon announced her discovery of arsenic-based life in a California lake. This work had undergone peer review and been published in one of the world’s most prestigious journals, then brought to public attention amid intense hype. Wolfe-Simon and her colleagues were somewhat startled to find their work subjected to an informal, and often snide, supplement to the original review—but with dozens of well-informed reviewers rather than a handful.

Arsenic-Rich Mono Lake, Source of the Controversial Bacteria

There is an excellent overview here, but in brief: several scientists criticized Wolfe-Simon’s methods and measurements, questioning her conclusions. She, and NASA, responded by suggesting that the peer review process was not only important, but the only legitimate venue for scientific critique. They dismissed the input from blogs and Twitter—on the basis that it occurred on blogs and Twitter. And they used the journal’s prestige as a defense against the very real questions of fact raised by their critics.

There’s always some tension between science and scientists. Science works by constantly seeking evidence against claims, accepting only those which are supported by the observed state of the world. Technically speaking, every experiment should be a whole-hearted attempt to prove that one is wrong—because one can only be sure of being right when that disproof fails. Scientists, however, depend on rightness for their livelihood and reputation. If you successfully disprove all your hypotheses for several years, universities and grant-givers consider you a failure. Furthermore, scientists are human, and we like to be right.

The peer review process is intended as a counter to these human tendencies. It is not the only one possible: any expansion of informed debate and criticism is good for science. That the criticism is informed—that it comes from people who understand and are involved with the field in question—is important. That it come from a traditional venue is not. Online forums provide a rich environment for discussion, facilitating a more collaborative and extended critique than was previously possible.

Some scientists take deliberate advantage of 2.0 review. A few journals print any paper that appears to have valid methods, with review as an ongoing and public process. Other sites are devoted to “post-publication peer review.” Although these methods have their weak points, they have the potential to fill some of the gaps in the more traditional system. And as these innovations become more familiar, one hopes that more researchers will welcome them—and that their research will become stronger as a result.

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