Spilling the truth about science in the news

7 05 2010

So when was the last time you saw a news story about sound science or environmental issues?

Okay, now might not be a good time to ask that question, considering we are in the midst of trying to figure out how to contain the thousands of gallons of oil that are spewing into the Gulf of Mexico from BP‘s rented oil rig, Deepwater Horizon.

In case you’ve been in a coma for the past two weeks or finishing up your graduate degree, here’s what happened. On April 20th., 2010 the oil rig, which is on lease from Transocean caught on fire and eventually collapsed and sank into the gulf.


Video courtesy of AlJazeera

Apparently a safeguard called a “blowout preventer” failed to controlled the natural gas bubble or “kick” that can occur when capping these wells with cement and sent these unfortunate affects into motion. The reason for the failure is unknown at this time until the companies responsible can do a more thorough investigation into the disaster.

Most of the stories you are probably finding in the news is more about politics and economics of the spill that the environmental effects. Bloomberg reported that BP has lost $30 million dollars as a result of the spill as of today and will lose more as the days go on.

BP had asked the U.S. government for assistance in the clean up but were initially rejected by President Obama. Yet, the Obama Adminstration
did sign off on expanding offshore drilling this past March in the hopes of pushing forward energy and climate legislation that would lead the country beyond our reliance on petroleum. And of course, the federal government is now spending money to oversee the cleanup.

AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

Economics and politics should be put on the backburner of this situation for the time being. The main concern for both the companies involved and the government should be on protecting the surround habitats from the effects this spill will have on their ecosystems.

I can assure you that the fishermen who are volunteering their ships and services to aid in the cleanup have these ecosystems as the forefront of their concern. Their livelihoods are dependent on it.

AP Photo/The Times Picayune, Ted Jackson

It seems the only time the biological science are mentioned in the news are when catastrophes such as this occur. The one scientific story that has developed from all this, and was reported in the May 5th issue of the New York Times is the use of chemical dispersants that have been thrown onto the spill in order to help contain it, with seemingly little forethought to the adverse affects.

Very little is known about these dispersants and what chemicals go into the manufacturing of them as the companies that produce them say there a “proprietary” ingredients that they want to guard for commercial reasons. What should be propriety are these companies responsibility to be sure that they aren’t doing more harm than good to the ecosystems they insist they are helping to protect.

Why is the public so misinformed about topics such as this? With the amount of oil drilling that is done on daily basis it must be assumed that spills such as the one April 20th are bound to happen and the possible solutions such as chemical dispersants should be understood by the general public so they can help shape policy to handle these situations in ways that best suit them and the environments they live in.

This is the problem with scientific journalism in today’s age. The public is poorly informed. These are issues that affect citizens everyday lives. You don’t think they do? Ask the fishermen on the gulf coast if this concerns them.

Dr. Janet MacFall, associate professor of Elon University’s Environmental Studies department feels that the public relies on the news for such information when she says that, ” the majority of citizens don’t read scientific journals for news about science”, their primary resource for scientific information is going to be news organizations.

Because the gulf coast fishermen live hand in hand with their environments, they understand what is and isn’t best for the ecology of the areas live. They have even suggested using hay instead of chemical dispersants because it is cheap, would effectively absorb the oil, environmentally friendly, and sustainable. An ideal solution for all parties involved. They’ve been doing their own research for decades and even centuries by living within these ecosystems.

Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images
Instead of building the $365 million rig, and spending BP spending $500,000 a day to rent it (Bloomberg), they could be putting that money into research and development of alternative and sustainable energy sources, as I’m sure President Obama and the citizens he is suppose to serve hoped they would. Besides the continuous “empty talk” commercials these oil companies air on TV, saying they are working on developing these alternatives, they need to be showing the public what they are coming up with and beginning to implementing it, not just talking about it.

Where are we, as citizens going to get sound science news in the near future. Perhaps it will be from citizens themselves. Dr. Jeffrey Coker of Elon’s Biology department feels that, “citizens are capable of conducting sound research and sharing with the public their findings.

By putting science in their own hands, citizens will be more informed of issues that are important to them and more likely to take action, much like the fisherman offering their assistance in the gulf coast oil spill.

The more we talk about this spill in the news, perhaps we can persuade these oil companies to take more proactive actions and responsibility for what they are doing to harm ecosystems and our livelihoods. It is clear that with efforts such as those mentioned above, the horizon of the deep water won’t be so murky.

For a live tracker and video stream of the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico which can be downloaded and embedded into your website visit the PBS website.

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Electronic Botanical Field Guide

22 10 2009

Within the past couple of years, technology and interactivity have started to make a huge impact on our ability to discover and study the amazing organisms and ecosystems that inhabit this Earth.  Scientists are now able to essentially bring all the resources they need with them into the field with the use of new portable electronic devices and the Internet.

Over the past few centuries scientists have identified and described 1.8 million species of plants, animals , and microorganisms found on Earth.  However, it is estimated that there are well over 8.5 million species that have yet to be discovered.  That’s 8.5 species of organisms that could be the source of medicinal chemicals that could cure or eradicate all human diseases.

While 1.8 million is an impressive number, realize that it did take hundreds of years to identify all the known species.  That is an amount of time that we as humans can no longer afford.  With that pace of discovery and the rate at which species of plants, animals, and microorganisms are disappearing from our Earth, there will be nothing left for us to find.  In a few hundreds years we may no longer exist as well.

Technology however, can help keep this from happening. In fields such as botany, there are new advancements in portable devices that are changing the way and speed at which science occurs.

In the past botanists had to collect specimens by hand (which can disturb the ecosystem) and take them back to the lab, study their structure and then thumb through an endless number of books or examine cataloged specimens in herbaria or museums.  They was a very time consuming process.  It’s the reason why it’s taken so long to discover what we have up to now.

This is no longer the case for botanists. Currently scientists from the University of Maryland, Columbia University, and the Smithsonian Institute are developing a new database and field guide system to help identify and catalog new and existing plant species.  They call it, surprisingly enough, the Electronic Field Guide.

The scientists started by creating a photographic registry of available plant specimens.   They are taking detailed photos of the 85,000 plant species kept at the Smithonian Herbarium and in the future they will add specimens from other herbaria around the world.  Images are taken with state of the art cameras producing HD images with a 3600 x 5000 pixel resolution. In the near future laser range scanning can be used to create 3D images.

These images can then be accessed with the Electronic Field Guide.  These guides incorporate the use of the latest portable devices that allow the use of a touchable interface.  The field guide will allow botanists to have access to thousands of images instantly while they are in the field.  They can immediately identify if they are looking at an existing species or have discovered an entirely new species.

One of the protypes of the Electronic Field Guide

One of the protypes of the Electronic Field Guide

The scientists can then take an photograph of a specimen and send it back to the registry which may provide more information about the species it belongs to.  There is not longer bagging and bringing back specimens to the lab.  No more thumbing through dusty books and scouring through warehouses to identify specimens.

In the future, botanists will be able to access 3D images and with use of the touchable screens, will be able to rotate and view the images from different angles to help ensure proper identification.  In addition to the use of smaller devices such as smartphones to run the application the scientists behind the development of this system are hoping to develop an augmented reality interface.  Instead of a hand-held device this system would involve the use of a heads-up-display (HUD) in the form of eyeglasses which would free up a user’s hands and work more efficiently.

All this technology allows botanists to reduce the amount of time and resources spent discovering as many new species as possible.  In addition to this, science no longer has to be reserved only for the experts.  With the use of smaller and more available portable devices, anyone can help identify and catalog species of plants.  One could be on vacation and take pictures of the local plants and send those images to the registry.

Electronic Field Guide using a smartphone interface.

Electronic Field Guide using a smartphone interface.

By decreasing the amount of time it takes to discovery new species, we increase our chance of discovering a plant that could be the cure to the world’s deadliest diseases such as Cancer or AIDS.  We also increase our understanding of ecosystems and how their existence and ours intertwine and why it is so important that we help maintain these habitats.  There is much in our world that we have yet to discover but with the use of technologies such as the Electronic Field Guide, the next discovery may change our world forever.