Archive for the ‘Science and Society’ Category

Artist Luke Jerram creates the most dazzling glass-blown representations of microbes, to the awe of scientists and the general public. His glass microbiology series includes viruses like H.I.V. and bacteria like E. coli in remarkable structural detail. Colorblind, the artist focused on the shapes and textures of these pathogens. Some works are currently on display in a Manhattan art gallery.

Luke Jerram’s glass-blown representation of H.I.V. Image provided courtesy of the artist.

Luke Jerram’s series is not without its critics. Some, including medical professionals, question whether he should use the causes of deadly and incurable diseases for artistic purposes. However, such criticisms may underplay the power of these works of art to engage the public and put a face on faceless pathogens. These breathtaking works reveal a world of biology and medicine hidden for millennia by the limitations of the human eye, and dampened even in the 21st century by the limitations of the two-dimensional images we use to view these creatures under a microscope. Luke Jerram’s works bring that much-needed third dimension. Take a look for yourself.

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Apparently, today (and every 8 June) is World Oceans Day. Along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, I’m guessing today’s holiday was overshadowed by more bad news from the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster.

If you’re like me and spent most of today unaware of World Oceans Day, the Ocean Project has a few easy steps you can take (aside from the obvious: drive less) to help out in response to the Deepwater Horizon crisis. Take a look and see how you can lend a hand.

The picture above shows thick oil piled up along a private beach in Grand Isle, Louisiana. Image provided courtesy of Katherine Bourg and the New York Times.

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Charles Darwin, proponent of the theory of evolution by natural selection.

Nature has a brief and fascinating interview with evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson of New York’s Binghamton University. Dr. Wilson is a full time researcher, yet he also spends time injecting evolution into public policy debates. He advocates engaging the general public with evolutionary ideas, and giving evolutionary theories real world relevance for society.

Dr. Wilson’s ideas couldn’t come at a better time. Among Western nations, Americans are famously skeptical of evolution. It was only four years ago that a comprehensive review of surveys on public perceptions of evolution determined that less than half of Americans agreed with the assertion that human beings evolved from other animal species. A mere 14% of the general public believes that evolution is “definitely true.” Of all the Western countries surveyed, only Turkey had a population that was more wary of evolution, while Scandinavian countries had over three-quarters of their citizens accepting evolutionary theory.

Americans have unique historical and sociological reasons for their skepticism and hostility toward evolution. Many have theorized that the strong presence of Protestant fundamentalism in the American tradition decoupled religious learning from the major universities. As a result, whole Protestant groups educated and cultivated clergy and congregations hostile to mainstream Western education ideals and standards, especially in regard to the natural sciences. In addition, in recent decades, the political climate in the United States has added fuel to the notion of evolution as a dangerous, foolhardy, and heretical falsehood. President Reagan famously littered some campaign speeches with the line, “I have no chimpanzees in my family,” to ridicule a whole field of biological study. Some argue that the link between the political right in the United States with hostility toward evolutionary theory was cemented to curry favor among religious fundamentalists. If so, it is an alliance that is noticeably absent in other Western countries. In much of Europe and Japan, far-right political groups are just as a likely to accept evolutionary theory as other segments of the population.

Another reason the American public is so hostile to evolution may be the poor state of scientific literacy in general in the United States. Most Americans have only a minimal scientific education up through high school, barely touching on subjects like evolution, genetics, and inheritance. Beyond high school, most Americans don’t further their scientific education at all. Dr. Wilson’s group at Binghamton University is researching ways to inject evolution back into the day-to-day lives of ordinary Americans. It will be interesting to see if these methods bear fruit, especially since Dr. Wilson himself believes his methods of engagement may not please a prominent pro-evolution group: atheists.

Dr. Wilson is an atheist himself, but does not agree with many “new atheists” who take an openly hostile view to all religious belief. In fact, part of Dr. Wilson’s work looks at the group benefits of religious belief from an evolutionary perspective.

To learn more, read Dr. Wilson’s whole interview with Nature.

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New analyses of genes from modern humans and extinct neanderthals have revealed something remarkable: some of us have a tiny amount of neanderthal ancestry.

Neanderthals were a group of hominids (human-like great apes) who last shared a common ancestor with all modern humans over 500,000 years ago. Based on fossil records, neanderthals lived primarily in Europe and some parts of Asia. For most of neanderthal history, we humans occupied parts of Africa. However, a small group of humans left Africa in a series of migration waves starting 50,000 to 80,000 years ago. As humans migrated out of Africa, neanderthal numbers declined. Neanderthals ultimately died out sometime around 30,000 years ago. However, the timing and cause of our robust cousin’s disappearance is a matter of intense debate, as is their interaction with modern humans as they left Africa and spread to Eurasia, Oceania, and the Americas.

  • As humans migrated out of Africa, did they interact with neanderthals?
  • Did ancient humans breed with neanderthals?
  • If ancient humans bred with neanderthals, did this breeding extend to human populations who remained in Africa?
  • (more…)

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This satellite image shows the Mississippi River flowing through the Quad Cities metropolitan area, forming the border between the states of Iowa and Illinois. From its source in Minnesota’s Lake Itasca, the Mississippi River flows over 2,300 miles, past countless farms and communities like the Quad Cities, before reaching the Gulf of Mexico. The Iowa-Illinois Quad Cities are an example of one location where the oceans begin. You’re standing on another.

The typical amount of time I devote in a week to researching topics and writing entries for this website has been cut severely this week. Part of the blame lies with my research, since the fish I study for my graduate thesis breed in the late spring and early summer. But, this week, COSEE can also share the blame. They have several events in Seattle this week, including their nationwide meeting.

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This true-color image shows southwestern Australia as it appeared on 18 August 2002. A significant chunk of the coastal region is green, a sign that ample seasonal rainfall has done its job. However, to the north and east, hot and dry conditions persist, as a reminder that much of the Australian landscape is dominated by the arid and semi-arid “Outback.”

Australia is the driest inhabited continent, and it is getting drier. The patches of temperate and sub-tropical areas along the coast (including the pictured bit of southwestern Australia) are getting warmer, but receiving less rainfall. Much of southeast Australia (including most of the major urban centers) has been wracked by a decades-long drought. The Murray-Darling river system in the southeast, the only major river system on the continent, is drying up quickly, depriving the country’s limited agricultural land of much-needed irrigation. Cities like Western Australia’s Perth (with a 2009 population of 1,659,000) have seen water demand spike as reservoirs drop. Already, the country has three desalination plants operating to provide water for coastal cities, with three more under construction and at least one more planned. These desalination plants will likely increase Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions, already the highest per capita in the world.

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NASA and the Houston Symphony have joined forces, bringing the music of The Planets together with NASA images of those planets. This stunning union of great music and awe-inspiring images has taken Houston by storm, and is set to tour Europe (though only once that pesky Icelandic volcano calms down).

The Planets???

The Planets (Opus 32) is a seven-movement orchestral suite written by British composer Gustav Holst between 1914 and 1916. Of all his works, this suite remains his most famous and most performed. Each movement is dedicated to a planet. While not much was known about the planets when Holst composed this work, he crafted the movements to relate mostly to the planet’s astrological properties. There aren’t movements for Earth (not an astrological sign) or Pluto (which wasn’t discovered until 1930, and now isn’t considered a planet anyway).

Here are the movements, with Holst’s titles and my brief description:

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The space shuttle program ends this year.  Shuttles have been flying for over 30 years, but the whole program’s history — from hints and whispers to design and construction — really stretches back over half a century.

Before there was NASA, there was NACA. The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics was formed in 1915 to organize, promote, and conduct aeronautical research. NACA (say the individual letters, not “naca” like we say “nasa”) conducted research in a variety of fields, including experiments to improve the efficiency of jet engines and break the sound barrier. By the mid-1950s, NACA scientists were designing the X-15, a reusable rocket-powered aircraft designed to reach the extreme upper regions of Earth’s atmosphere. Project members were hopeful that the X-15 designs could serve as the basis for a reusable spacecraft. A X-15-inspired spacecraft could be put into orbit using disposable rockets and then land like a conventional aircraft. A “spaceplane,” to use the tired term. In 1958, Congress folded NACA into its new space agency, NASA. The Mercury Project began, and any dreams of a reusable spaceplane were put on hold.

In the late 1960s, with the Apollo Program well underway (and about to put a man on the Moon), NASA began to look to the future. After humankind lands on the Moon, where should an agency with limited recourses go next? Some ideas included additional Moon missions, manned missions to Mars, and manned missions to low Earth orbit to research and develop technology and infrastructure (satellites, space stations, spacecraft). For that final point, a series of tests by the U.S. military had given the reusable spaceplane idea new life: some sort of reusable spaceplane orbiter (or shuttle), combined with some reusable and disposable external components to get the shuttle into orbit, could indeed be economically and technologically feasible. The design process for a shuttle orbiter began in earnest in 1969. In 1972, the Nixon administration made it official: NASA would develop a new “Space Transportation System” (STS) to put humankind into low Earth orbit.

In the final designs for the STS Program (as the space shuttle program was formally christened), NASA contracted private firms to build a small fleet of reusable orbiters (I’ll call them “shuttles” from here on) and a combination of reusable and disposable components to send those shuttles into low Earth orbit. The reusable components include two “space shuttle solid rocket boosters,” powerful rockets that provide the vast majority of the lift and thrust needed to get the shuttle off the launching pad. They propel the shuttle for about the first two minutes of flight, then detach and land in the ocean (they have parachutes), to be recovered later for future missions. The (usually orange) external fuel tank provides the shuttle’s three engines with liquid hydrogen fuel during launch. It detaches from the orbiter after the shuttle’s engines are shut off, and the external tank falls back to Earth, breaking up in the atmosphere. The shuttle itself carries the crew, their quarters, research labs, and cargo (known as the “payload”). The payload can be anything from a satellite (like the Hubble Space Telescope), cargo, or a heavy component like a module of the International Space Station. When it’s mission is complete, the shuttle re-enters the atmosphere, protected from intense heat and pressure by the tile-based heat shield system on its ventral surface, and lands on a (very long) runway like a conventional aircraft.

The subsequent history of the STS program is best summarized by a review of the shuttle fleet NASA built, some of the prominent STS missions, and the ultimate fate of each shuttle to date. All shuttles were given the designation “OV” (orbital vehicle) followed by three numbers. If the first number is a zero, then NASA intended the shuttle for tests, never an actual mission. A one indicates that the shuttle was intended for orbital flight. All space shuttle missions are given the designation “STS”, followed by a hyphen and then a number. I have included the STS number for those most notable (or tragic) missions:

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Last week, I read a headline in the New York Times that evolutionary biologist Dr. Francisco Ayala was the 2010 recipient of the Templeton Prize from the John Templeton Foundation. Frankly, I’d never heard of the Templeton Prize before, and assumed that it was an award for achievements in scientific research. However, the prize, worth about $1.5 million, is actually awarded to “a living person who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works.”


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