Our Common Good
I think the things we really mess up on in our educational system, we talk about math and science and engineers and all those bright people and how they are going to do wonderful things, and we forget to tell the students it’s fun. Right? It’s amazing to come to work in the morning and be able to pose your own questions, as opposed to doing something your boss tells you you gotta do today whether you like it or not. A creative life as a scientist, or engineer or mathematician, is a very rewarding life. You have the potential to answer a question no one has ever figured out the answer to.

One of the most beneficial uses of tax dollars is funding research, especially research that is directed toward understanding the damaging effects of climate change. Here in the United States, Los Alamos National Laboratory is doing just that through their SUMO (SUrvival/MOrtality) project. What they’re trying to discern during this study are the physiological mechanisms in place that may lead to the death of trees that have been subjected to prolonged periods of drought and rising temperatures. By taking a range of measurements over an extended period of time they hope to determine what happens to the trees during unusual drought and warming cycles, and thus determine the connections and feedback loops that exist between tree death and climate change. (via Tree Death Study’s Climate Change Connections — Global Patriot)

Climate researchers from around the world gathered for three days at UC San Diego to share information and formulate strategies. They discussed the importance of talking about sea-level rise and climate change as they brainstormed what advice they should give to university presidents. During that session, some of the APRU members urged more of an activist role, saying too much time already has been lost.
sciencesoup:

Badass Scientist of the Week: Dr. Eric Pianka
Eric Pianka (1939–) is a biologist, herpetologist and evolutionary ecologist, specializing in lizards from all over the world.  He became interested in lizards at an early age, while living along the California-Oregon border near an army base, but when he was 13, he and his brothers found an intact bazooka shell—which Pianka accidentally dropped. The blast basically exploded his leg. Most of it was reconstructed, but his left leg was left shortened and partially paralysed, which later resulted in spinal problems. Field biologists have physically and mentally challenging jobs, travelling to remote locations and dealing with dangerous animals, but Pianka wasn’t fazed by his disability. After graduating from high school, he travelled around the southern United States collecting snakes and butterflies, then graduated from Carleton College with a BA in biology, attended the University of Washington studying lizard ecology and diversity, then completed a postdoctoral degree at Princeton University. He spent a year and a half doing fieldwork in the deserts of Western Australia, where he discovered six new lizard species. When he returned to work at the University of Texas, he took up wrestling bisons as a hobby, going out onto the U.S. prairies to herd them and even being gored once. Pianka continues with fieldwork to this day—aged 73—and all up, he’s spent nearly 10 years of his life in some of the most terrible and inhospitable deserts in the world: the Great Basin, Mojave, and Sonora Deserts in North America, the Kalahari in Africa, the Great Victoria Desert in Western Australia… Pianka also cares deeply about the plight of the Earth. In an acceptance speech for the 2006 Distinguished Texas Scientist Award, he became so passionate about the survival of Earth that he suggested that the best solution was to develop an airborne version of the Ebola virus to kill 90% of humans, thus saving the planet. He later stated that he wasn’t advocating mass murder, but he stuck by his guns that the Earth would indeed be better off. Needless to say, this was controversial—and completely badass.

sciencesoup:

Badass Scientist of the Week: Dr. Eric Pianka

Eric Pianka (1939–) is a biologist, herpetologist and evolutionary ecologist, specializing in lizards from all over the world.  He became interested in lizards at an early age, while living along the California-Oregon border near an army base, but when he was 13, he and his brothers found an intact bazooka shell—which Pianka accidentally dropped. The blast basically exploded his leg. Most of it was reconstructed, but his left leg was left shortened and partially paralysed, which later resulted in spinal problems. Field biologists have physically and mentally challenging jobs, travelling to remote locations and dealing with dangerous animals, but Pianka wasn’t fazed by his disability. After graduating from high school, he travelled around the southern United States collecting snakes and butterflies, then graduated from Carleton College with a BA in biology, attended the University of Washington studying lizard ecology and diversity, then completed a postdoctoral degree at Princeton University. He spent a year and a half doing fieldwork in the deserts of Western Australia, where he discovered six new lizard species. When he returned to work at the University of Texas, he took up wrestling bisons as a hobby, going out onto the U.S. prairies to herd them and even being gored once. Pianka continues with fieldwork to this day—aged 73—and all up, he’s spent nearly 10 years of his life in some of the most terrible and inhospitable deserts in the world: the Great Basin, Mojave, and Sonora Deserts in North America, the Kalahari in Africa, the Great Victoria Desert in Western Australia… Pianka also cares deeply about the plight of the Earth. In an acceptance speech for the 2006 Distinguished Texas Scientist Award, he became so passionate about the survival of Earth that he suggested that the best solution was to develop an airborne version of the Ebola virus to kill 90% of humans, thus saving the planet. He later stated that he wasn’t advocating mass murder, but he stuck by his guns that the Earth would indeed be better off. Needless to say, this was controversial—and completely badass.

jtotheizzoe:

Financial forecasters almost universally agreed there would be no collapse before 2008. It happened anyway. Earthquakes? The Fukushima disaster and the tsunami that caused it reminded us how awful we are at predicting those, too.

So are weathermen, the most ridiculed of predictors, actually doing it right? Although they miss a day or two here and there, our National Weather Service has been consistently improving for over a century.

In the New York Times, Nate Silver discusses how their acceptance of chaos theory helps them get past simply relying on Big Data:

Why are weather forecasters succeeding when other predictors fail? It’s because long ago they came to accept the imperfections in their knowledge. That helped them understand that even the most sophisticated computers, combing through seemingly limitless data, are painfully ill equipped to predict something as dynamic as weather all by themselves. So as fields like economics began relying more on Big Data, meteorologists recognized that data on its own isn’t enough.

jtotheizzoe:

Here’s their side-by-side responses to questions surrounding innovation, climate change, internet freedom, biosecurity, energy, vaccination, space, and food/water access.

These questions are the work of ScienceDebate.org and Scientific American, who asked American scientists what they thought were the most pressing science issues faced by these candidates.

There’s not exactly a lot of surprises here, but if you’re looking for a one-stop science policy shop for this year’s election … this is it.

neurosciencestuff:

Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) researchers have identified a potential medical treatment for the cognitive effects of stress-related disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The study, conducted in a PTSD mouse model, shows that an experimental drug called S107, one of a new class of small-molecule compounds called Rycals, prevented learning and memory deficits associated with stress-related disorders. The findings were published in the online edition of Cell.
Based on his earlier work in heart and muscle disorders, Dr. Marks reasoned that chronic stress could lead to PTSD by destabilizing type 2 ryanodine receptors (RyR2) in the hippocampus, the brain region that plays a central role in learning and memory. RyR2 are channels that regulate the level of calcium in neurons, which is vital to cell survival and function.
“When we examined the hippocampal neurons of the stressed mice, we found that their RyR2 channels had become destabilized and leaky compared with channels from normal non-stressed mice which were not leaky. There was a remodeling of the channels that we had previously seen in heart and skeletal muscles from animal models of chronic diseases including heart failure and muscular dystrophy. We found these same leaky channels in samples from patients with these disorders but not in those from healthy humans,” said Dr. Marks.

neurosciencestuff:

Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) researchers have identified a potential medical treatment for the cognitive effects of stress-related disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The study, conducted in a PTSD mouse model, shows that an experimental drug called S107, one of a new class of small-molecule compounds called Rycals, prevented learning and memory deficits associated with stress-related disorders. The findings were published in the online edition of Cell.

Based on his earlier work in heart and muscle disorders, Dr. Marks reasoned that chronic stress could lead to PTSD by destabilizing type 2 ryanodine receptors (RyR2) in the hippocampus, the brain region that plays a central role in learning and memory. RyR2 are channels that regulate the level of calcium in neurons, which is vital to cell survival and function.

“When we examined the hippocampal neurons of the stressed mice, we found that their RyR2 channels had become destabilized and leaky compared with channels from normal non-stressed mice which were not leaky. There was a remodeling of the channels that we had previously seen in heart and skeletal muscles from animal models of chronic diseases including heart failure and muscular dystrophy. We found these same leaky channels in samples from patients with these disorders but not in those from healthy humans,” said Dr. Marks.

The exponential trend in solar watts per dollar has been going on for at least 31 years now. If it continues for another 8-10, which looks extremely likely, we’ll have a power source which is as cheap as coal for electricity, with virtually no carbon emissions. If it continues for 20 years, which is also well within the realm of scientific and technical possibility, then we’ll have a green power source which is half the price of coal for electricity.

climateadaptation:

Here on my climate adaptation tumblr, I try (my best) to post about environmental issues that are roughly related to the impacts from shifts in the climate. Sea-level rise is the most obvious impact. Melting glaciers and Arctic ice are raising the levels of the ocean. And cities around the world are scrambling to deal with the impacts, which are mind-blowingly huge, incredibly expensive, and often politically vexing. 

I have masters degrees in environmental law and city planning. The focus of my research was/is how land-use laws were able (or, rather, unable) to accommodate climate science. So, naturally, I’m interested in how climate will affect infrastructure, economies, demographics, ecosystems, etc.

For example, I’m quite interested how can coastal communities deal with a rising sea. Especially big cities like New York City or San Fransisco, which have thousands of buildings, roads, ports, and pipelines literally built inches from the ocean.

Cities are prepared for certain levels of disasters. There are sea walls and evacuation plans, flood pump stations and hurricane barriers. And buildings and infrastructure are generally built to high standards. But, cites are not prepared for higher oceans (why would they be?). Climate change changes the equations and calculations of managing disasters in cities. They’re forced to adapt, regardless of how many solar panels are slapped onto rooftops.

It’s a complicated issue. Greenhouse gasses trap in more heat in the atmosphere, causing a bunch of crazy environmental things to happen. So the obvious response is to stop pumping carbon into the air. That’s Al Gore’s primary message.

The problem with this is that storms and fires and diseases are increasing as a result from rising temperatures. Climate change is occurring regardless of mitigation. Thus, the impacts have to be dealt with. In fact, our troubles are only going to increase. I choose to be on the impacts side of this conundrum (eg, adaptation).

So, what’s my deal with oil leaks and spills? The short answer is that oil and gas infrastructure, such as pipelines and oil rigs, are very vulnerable to climate impacts. Oil - like it or not - makes the world go round. It’s in nearly everything we use - from plastics to medicine to soap. There is no stopping oil.

I wrote about this last year for GOOD Magazine. IBM and a climate consulting firm called Acclimatise did a study on the oil and gas industry’s vulnerability to climate change. I showed that oil pipelines in Alaska are more likely to break and leak oil than ever before, and that the oil industry is way under-prepared to deal with these new types of leaks:

In one of most ironic flip-flops in environmental history, the oil and gas industry is beginning to adapt to climate change. And it’s no wonder. The majority of industry’s infrastructure is located in some of the most climate vulnerable regions on the planet. Nearly 75 percent of the Alaskan pipeline, for example, is built over increasingly unstable permafrost, which is now thawing under warmer temperatures. The Mackenzie Valley in Canada alone has recorded over 2,000 sink holes, rock slides, and large depressions from thawing permafrost.

The pipeline’s famous elevated design was the result of a 20 year study (PDF) on the stability of climate and permafrost from 1950 to 1970. Based on the historic record, engineers designed the supports for the pipeline to withstand some fluctuation in permafrost, but not for the extensive melts now predicted. Indeed, that 20 year study was the one of the coldest periods in Alaskan history. Whoops.

The study I referred to, Global Oil & Gas - The Adaptation Challenge, showed that infrastructure was dangerously unprepared for climate impacts. Thousands of miles of oil pipelines are perched on permafrost in Canada, Russia, and Alaska.

Permafrost is permanently frozen soil - essentially the land is mixture of ice, rocks, and soil. Permafrost does move around a bit and any infrastructure built on it is (usually) engineered to handle a certain level of flex (the EPA has a decent primer on permafrost).

But, when the ice melts in substantial volumes, the soil shrinks and contracts. As a result, anything built on permafrost is in big trouble. Oil and gas pipelines could rupture, causing tremendous environmental damage, as well as incredible costs to economies in terms of clean up costs (who pays?), damage to fisheries and tourism, and lowered property values (and tax revenues). Not to mention health troubles for workers and residents.

So, that’s pretty much why I post so much on oil - infrastructure vulnerability. Oil spills are nasty, nasty creatures. Their economic and environmental impacts are super gnarly to deal with. And they’re expected, as IBM showed, to increase unless the infrastructure adapts to the “new normal”.

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Y’know what’s worse than Republicans denying evolution? Republicans trying to make arguments based on evolution

shiracoffee:

It is a curious scientific fact (explained in evolutionary biology by the Trivers-Willard hypothesis — Willard, notice) that high-status animals tend to have more male offspring than female offspring, which holds true across many species, from red deer to mink to Homo sap. The offspring of rich families are statistically biased in favor of sons — the children of the general population are 51 percent male and 49 percent female, but the children of the Forbes billionaire list are 60 percent male.

Have a gander at that Romney family picture: five sons, zero daughters. Romney has 18 grandchildren, and they exceed a 2:1 ratio of grandsons to granddaughters (13:5). When they go to church at their summer-vacation home, the Romney clan makes up a third of the congregation. He is basically a tribal chieftain.

Professor Obama? Two daughters. May as well give the guy a cardigan. And fallopian tubes.

From an evolutionary point of view, Mitt Romney should get 100 percent of the female vote. All of it. He should get Michelle Obama’s vote.

This argument — which is curiously reminiscent of the early-twentieth-century eugenics movement — appeared in the National Review. A little learning is a dangerous thing, wouldn’t you say? Maybe it was meant as satire, and yet… it has the odd ring of smugness, of the jester who thinks he is speaking a sort of truth.

The complete article by Kevin Williamson can be found here if you can stand it.

Afterwards, I would recommend your reading “National Review’s Kevin Williamson Comes Out Against Daughters, Misunderstands Science" by Jonathan Marks and Sarah Morice-Brubaker

The Council for Biotechnology Information (CBI) has published a kids’ book on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) that purports to give kids “a closer look at biotechnology. You will see that biotechnology is being used to figure out how to: 1) grow more food; 2) help the environment; and 3) grow more nutritious food that improves our health.”

If that book doesn’t appeal to you, you could try a nanotechnology coloring book made by a company that produces such things as “colloidal silver nanoparticles” used in antibacterial products that find their way into the water supply and can be poisonous to the human system. It compares nanotechnologies like these silvers to “the smell of baking cookies.”

Or perhaps a “biosolids” workbook made by wastewater treatment facilities? It directs kids to grow sunflowers in toxic sewage sludge to see how they grow.

Monsanto Brainwashing: GMO Myths for Kids

Monsanto and its cohorts among the “Big 6" pesticide and GMO companies — Monsanto, Dow Chemical, Bayer, Syngenta, Dupont, and BASF — are fighting a battle with California voters on whether or not GMO foods should be labeled. In the meantime, the trade group CBI, whose membership consists solely of those six corporations, is busily educating children on the supposed benefits of GMOs.

[…]

As CMD’s PRWatch has reported, industries and their front groups “target … America’s teachers and, ultimately, our children … trying to justify everything from deforestation to extinction of species. … Surreptitious public relations campaigns and deceptive advertising are battling today for the hearts and minds of our children.” John Borowski, an environmental science teacher, reported that teachers at the 2000 National Science Teachers Convention were “quickly filling their bags with curricula as corrosive as the pesticides that the Farm Bureau promotes.”

Twelve years haven’t changed the way spinmeisters operate. Corporate propaganda like this is distributed online, handed out at conferences and fairs where these corporations, agencies, and their front groups exhibit, as well as at teachers’ conventions like Borowski describes.

Take a look around key committees of the House and you’ll find a governing body stocked with crackpots whose views on major issues are as removed from reality as Missouri’s Representative Todd Akin’s take on the sperm-killing powers of a woman who’s been raped.

On matters of basic science and peer-reviewed knowledge, from evolution to climate change to elementary fiscal math, many Republicans in power cling to a level of ignorance that would get their ears boxed even in a medieval classroom. Congress incubates and insulates these knuckle-draggers.

[…]

We’re currently experiencing the worst drought in 60 years, a siege of wildfires, and the hottest temperatures since records were kept.  But to Republicans in Congress, it’s all a big hoax. The chairman of a subcommittee that oversees issues related to climate change,  Representative John Shimkus of Illinois is — you guessed it  — a climate-change denier.

At a 2009 hearing, Shimkus said not to worry about a fatally dyspeptic planet: the biblical signs have yet to properly align. “The earth will end only when God declares it to be over,” he said, and then he went on to quote Genesis at some length.  It’s worth repeating: This guy is the chairman.

On the same committee is an oil-company tool and 27-year veteran of Congress, Representative Joe L. Barton of Texas.  You may remember Barton as the politician who apologized to the head of BP in 2010 after the government dared to insist that the company pay for those whose livelihoods were ruined by the gulf oil spill.

Barton cited the Almighty in questioning energy from wind turbines. Careful, he warned, “wind is God’s way of balancing heat.”  Clean energy, he said,  “would slow the winds down” and thus could make it hotter. You never know.

“You can’t regulate God!” Barton barked at the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, in the midst of discussion on measures to curb global warming.

The Catholic Church long ago made its peace with evolution, but the same cannot be said of House Republicans.  Jack Kingston of Georgia, a 20-year veteran of the House,  is an evolution denier, apparently because he can’t see the indent where his ancestors’ monkey tail used to be. “Where’s the missing link?” he said in 2011. “I just want to know what it is.” He serves on a committee that oversees education.

In his party, Kingston is in the mainstream. A Gallup poll in June found that 58 percent of Republicans believe God created humans in the present form just within the last 10,000 years — a wealth of anthropological evidence to the contrary.

Another Georgia congressman, Paul Broun,  introduced the so-called personhood legislation in the House — backed by Akin and Representative Paul Ryan — that would have given a fertilized egg the same constitutional protections as a fully developed human being.

Broun is on the same science, space and technology committee that Akin is. Yes, science is part of their purview.

Where do they get this stuff? The Bible, yes, but much of the misinformation and the fables that inform Republican politicians comes from hearsay, often amplified by their media wing.

Remember the crazy statement that helped to kill the presidential aspirations of  Michele Bachmann?  A vaccine, designed to prevent a virus linked to cervical cancer, could cause mental retardation, she proclaimed. Bachmann knew this, she insisted, because some random lady told her so at a campaign event.  Fearful of the genuine damage Bachmann’s assertion could do to public health, the American Academy of Pediatrics promptly rushed out a notice, saying,  “there is absolutely no scientific validity to this statement.”

Nor is there is reputable scientific validity to those who deny that the globe’s climate is changing for the worst. But Bachmann calls that authoritative consensus a hoax, and faces no censure from her party.

It’s encouraging that Republican heavyweights have since told Akin that uttering scientific nonsense about sex and rape is not good for the party’s image. But where are these fact-enforcers on the other idiocies professed by elected representatives of their party?

Arctic Death Spiral: How It Favors Extreme, Prolonged Weather Events ‘Such As Drought, Flooding, Cold Spells And Heat Waves’ By Joe Romm Aug 2012 

barrywone-blog:

We are headed for record lows in Arctic sea ice area and volume, as I discussed Monday.

The death spiral will start to make headlines in this country when we beat the record low sea ice extent set in 2007 as monitored by our National Snow and Ice Data Center. We are getting close, as the latest data make clear (see figure).

But the death spiral of Arctic ice deserves attention beyond its obvious indication of a warming planet. There is increasing scientific analysis suggesting that the loss of ice in the distant Arctic is helping drive the off-the-charts extreme weather we have been seeing right here in this country in recent years (see “Has Global Warming Caused A Quantum Jump In Extreme Weather?“)

In particular, a 2012 Geophysical Research Letters study, “Evidence linking Arctic amplification to extreme weather in mid-latitudes,” finds that the loss of Arctic ice favors “extreme weather events that result from prolonged conditions, such as drought, flooding, cold spells, and heat waves.”

This is likely to be the story of the decade, especially since we are are on track for large declines in summer Arctic sea ice by 2020 and since the extreme weather is already helping to drive food prices to record levels (see “Climate Story of the Year: Warming-Driven Drought and Extreme Weather Emerge as Key Threat to Global Food Security“)

These videos are a bit on the technical side, so I’m going to reprint excerpts of two more general discussions. Andrew Freedman, senior science writer for Climate Central, had a good post in April, “Arctic Warming is Altering Weather Patterns, Study Shows.” He explains:

Entire story.

Arctic sea ice levels to reach record low within days John Vidal, environment editor guardian.co.uk, Thursday 23 August 2012 09.11 EDT

barrywone-blog:

Climate scientists expect the Arctic sea ice is on course to plummet to its lowest levels ever this weekend. Photgraph: Steven J Kazlowski/Alamy

Arctic sea ice is set to reach its lowest ever recorded extent as early as this weekend, in “dramatic changes” signalling that man-made global warming is having a major impact on the polar region.

With the melt happening at an unprecedented rate of more than 100,000 sq km a day, and at least a week of further melt expected before it begins to reform ahead of the northern winter, satellites are expected to confirm the record – currently set in 2007 – within days.

“Unless something really unusual happens we will see the record broken in the next few days. It might happen this weekend, almost certainly next week,” Julienne Stroeve, a scientist at the US National Snow and Ice Data Centre in Boulder, Colorado, told the Guardian.

“In the last few days it has been losing 100,000 sq km a day, a record in itself for August. A storm has spread the ice pack out, opening up water, bringing up warmer water. Things are definitely changing quickly.”

Because ice thickness, volume, extent and area are all measured differently, it may be a week before there is unanimous agreement among the world’s cryologists (ice experts) that 2012 is a record year. Four out of the nine daily sea ice extent and area graphs kept by scientists in the US, Europe and Asia suggest that records have already been broken.

Entire story.

Todd Akin is not only fundamentally deluded about the basic facts of women’s reproductive systems. He’s also fundamentally deluded about the basic facts of climate change.