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.



23 03 2010

Over the past few years as I’ve been utilizing the Internet and related plug-ins and understanding their capabilities, I’ve come to admire the way the Internet resembles nature in form and function while seeming to follow laws, not unlike those of science.

As I’ve been reading the “The Future of the Internet:  And How to Stop It”, by Jonathan Zittrain I’ve again returned to the repeating realization that the Internet has become and will remain successful because it is us who control it.

The Internet is organic.  We, the users create and maintain the content that is displayed online while also developing the plug-ins and applications that make the online experience more entertaining and engaging.

Zittrain believes that the Internet has been so successful because of its generative characteristics.  Generative systems are those that have the ability to be reprogrammed and thus repurposed.

A lot of the content found online can be altered or interacted with by others and ultimately changed.  In addition, applications and programs can be created by almost anyone that improve browser capabilities, offer new sets of tools to users, and ultimately diversifying the content.

This is not unlike nature.  Much like natural selection, minor mutations or alterations in a system such as genetic code or the Internet, allow parts of the systems to adapt to change and survive.

In order for users to keep up with the changing online environment they must continually add plug-ins that are openly shared so they can continue to ingest the endless experience and knowledge than can be found on the World Wide Web.   For example one must continually download the latest version of Flash Player to be able to watch the ever-advancing online videos that are generated on a daily basis.

In nature, females, when searching for mates look for the strongest most attractive males with whom to procreate.  The fitness of the male shows the female that he possesses the latest and greatest genes (plug-ins) found in their species, increasing her and their offspring’s chance of survival.

I’ve come to realize that my belief that the Internet’s biomimicry is shared by others.  Recently at SXSW 2010, one of the keynote speakers was Valerie Casey of the consulting firm, Designers Accord.  Her address touched on the idea that interactive media will be at the heart of environmental change.

The Designers Accord believes that manufacturers in various industries would benefit by looking to nature and mimicking in the way it designs, constructs, and evolves in order to produce more ecologically friendly devices.  Nature comes up with ingenious ways of ensuring the survival of species and companies and new technology can do the same.

Casey also believes that multimedia is the pathway in which information and knowledge about the conservation and sustainable development of our planet will be shared with the masses.  Sharing this knowledge in more efficient ways increases the chance for change in how we all look at the environment.

I believe Zittrain would feel the same.  On page 43 of his book he says, “generative systems are built on the notion that they are never fully complete, they have many uses yet to be conceived of, and that the public can be trusted to invent and share good uses.”  Like nature these systems are constantly evolving and offering opportunity to their users.

I’m sure Zittrain’s fellow former Oxford University professor Stephen Hawking, would understand how the social and technological adaptation of the Internet is occurring in that it is entropy in full effect.

The Internet is merely controlled chaos.  Much like in the field of astrophysics, the Internet is like the universe in that it is randomness that is somewhat controlled and directed by puny forces such as gravity in a physics sense and norms in an online social sense.

We oversee and filter the use of the Internet of not only our own friends and family but that of all other users we encounter online.  As I’ve discussed in a prior blog regarding the Solove reading and online anonymity, users construct norms by deciding what gets heard or seen and what doesn’t.

A case that Zittrain brings up in his book to support this is the “verkeersbordvrij” experiment in the Dutch town of Drachten.  The town decided to remove all it traffic signals and signage with the result of less accidents and overall safer driving by its citizens.

One would think that this would be complete chaos with people doing what they will and a moving in all directions.  However, when the signs are taken away the only option drivers on the road has is to conform to societal norms regarding the way people drive.  Drivers or “users”, must rely on each other to follow these same norms in order to coexist and operate the vehicles in a safe and efficient manner.

Norms that are the formed by the online majority dictate what devices are used and which voices are heard online.  Like Harvard University’s Berkman Center and the Oxford Internet Institute’s StopBadware project, users pick out the bad content and either block it and redirect other users away or alter it to reuse it for good.

It is us, and our natural “instincts” that are transforming the way we interact online and what the Internet can provide us.  The Internet and its technology is ours, we keep it healthy and clean and as Valerie Casey has suggested, we can use this technology to keep out planet the same.

Costa Rica and Earth University, LaFlor: Day 3/Part 1

12 01 2010

Jan. 09, 2010

Guanacasted National Park/Buena Vista Resort

Pura Vida from Costa Rica!  It’s 5:30 A.M. and I’m waiting to hear from the howlers but we must have beat them to awaking.  I think we are their alarm clock today as they start howling during breakfast.

For breakfast we are enjoying eggs, rice, beans, fresh cheese, papaya, pineapple, watermelon and probably the best orange juice and coffee I’ve ever tasted in my life.

After breakfast we are off to Guanacaste National Park to do some hiking and sightseeing with our guide for the day, Luis.  Also joining us is Ali, who arrived last night, who is a geologist from east Africa helping LaFlor look for locations on the property to create natural reservoirs to store water from the local watershed to use for the irrigation of LaFlor’s crops.

We are on the bus and beginning our 45 minute journey to the mountains.  Fifteen minutes into the drive Luis has us pull over on this dirt road to explain how the vegetation is changing a we begin our ascent towards the range.

This change in vegetation what is referred to as succession is a result of the of the change in temperature and water availability as you move higher up the mountain.  The rainforest in the part of Costa Rica we are in is slightly different than what most people would consider a rain forest.  Costa Rica is divided centrally by a mountain range that runs from the north to south through the majority of the country.  As the weather moves from the east, the heavy, water-filled clouds need to release their moisture in the form of  rain in order to ascend and cross over the mountains.  As a result there is less precipitation on the west side of the range, resulting in what is called a “dry” rainforest.

About twenty minutes from our destination and Luis has the bus pull over again and we get out next to the Colorado River which passes through LaFlor.  This is the source of LaFlor’s water used in irrigation and this particular location is where a lot of there water sample are collected to test for quality.  He follow Luis down a path and withing seconds we are standing atop a 40 foot gorge carved out by the river and complete with ancient petroglyphs.

After our quick stop at the river we have reached our destination at Guanacaste National Park and I am pumped and ready to attack this climb, full army pack and all.  We begin the ascent, then descent, then ascent again working our way through the trail and are amazed at the various flora found in the pre-mountainous level of the the volcano.

I have to admit, it’s very hard to watch where you are going and your footing while constantly being tempted to look around and the splendor of the forest.  Ahead I heard the scream of Emily and as I approach I see everyone tending to Linda who slipped on a rock while crossing the river and busting her lip and scraping her knee.  I have to tell you Linda is tiny in stature but HUGE in heart and adventure.  Not a single complaint or expression comes out of her mouth or from her face.  That is one tough girl.

After a few minutes of making sure she is okay, we continue on and quickly reach the next level of succession which included flora that would be more familiar in a temperate region of the world such as North America.

Our LaFlor host Luis guiding us through the trail

After a few minutes we reached the next level of succession resembling grasslands.  This point in two and a half hours into our hike and we take a break to enjoy the amazing view and take out my first aid kit to clean up Linda’s scratches  (and people mocked me for hiking with all my gear).  I have to be honest, the view from up hear was so stunning that I got a little emotional as goosebumps covered my body.

After our quick break we and on the move and heading down a descent to our final destination, a stunning 120 foot waterfall.  I’m the last one arriving at the waterfall as I am constantly talking pictures, and am almost knocked over as I came around the corner of the trail and see one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen in my life.  It took me less than a minute to get changed into my swim suit and get into the cold yet invigorating water below the fall.  I’m even daring enough to swim my camera out the fall to get some pictures from directly below.

After an hour or so of swimming and lunch we are off the head back to the bus.  I’m not sure how this is possible but we are doing more climbing up as we head back down the mountain.  I am exhausted as we reach the end of the trip back and my legs feel like Jello.  About 45 minutes from the base camp I come across a tree I noticed when we first entered the forest that rose about 60 or 70 feet in the air and bent almost horizontally towards the top.  On the way in I thought to myself that would be a awesome tree to climb as it was covered in thick vines.  As I return to it, I remind myself that I may never have this opportunity again, so I begin to climb up with camera in tow.  This is so cool…I’m climbing a tree in a Costa Rican rainforest, Bear Grylls style.  Without any fear what so ever, only exhilaration, I reach the top and am greeted by a colony of army ants that aren’t as excited about my accomplishment as I am.  With little regard for the red buggers with giant mandibles that are ripping into my flesh I proceed to take pictures of the top of the canopy and Phillip and Emily below.

I am so amped that I climbed that tree.  I am sure living this trip to the fullest as I had hoped I would.  Pura Vida!  Well, I’ve caught up to the rest of the group and I’m ready to get off my feet and get some water.  This has been one of the best days of my life and can’t imagine what is to come in the following week.  Stay tuned for more, I have a feeling there is a lot of it. 

May the Acoustic Radiation Pressure Be With You

9 10 2009

Even George Lucas had no idea what would come of holography when he made Star Wars.

Remember when Princess Leia’s image beamed out of R2-D2’s dome in Star Wars:  A New Hope, asking Obi-Wan Kenobi for his help?  Or when the image of the first Death Star engulfed the briefing room where the Rebel Alliance was planning their attack?

I remember…of course.  I’ve seen the movie at least a hundred times.  Ever since seeing those 3D images I’ve always  wondered if holographic technology would ever be involved in our daily lives.  And no, I don’t mean Wolf Blitzer using it on CNN.  Here’s a video parodying his use of the hologram.

Well, it hasn’t yet even though holographs have been around since 1947 when Hungarian physicist, Dennis Gabor stumbled upon the effect while trying to improve the technology of electron microscopes.

Holography has yet to become intertwined with our lives, as I’m sure Lucas had probably dreamed it would.  Yet I’m sure Lucas had no idea what has come of holography within the past year.

Touchable holography.  This could quite possibly be the springboard that holography has needed to become mainstream in society.  How cool would it be it Wolf could reach out and shake hands with the person in holographic form and sense the hologram’s hand.

Touchable holography is the term given to a new holographic technique developed by scientist from the University of Tokyo and Provision Interactive Technologies, Inc.

The hologram itself was developed by Provision Interactive Technologies, which has been a leader in the development of 3D interactive display technologies since 2001.  The one used in this research is “Holo”, PIT’s 2009 version of their hologram.

The important breakthrough of touchable holography is the ability to create tactile feel for users without dressing the holographic image, which has been the problem in the past.  The solution to this is what  the University of Tokyo has called the Airborne Ultrasound Tactile Display.  This a display that emits ultrasound and acoustic radiation pressure.

When an object, such as a person’s hand interrupts the ultrasound waves, a pressure is exerted on the object.  This gives the sensation of touch.

This system works with the combination of the hologram, tactile display, and Wiimotes, the controllers from Nintendo’s popular Wii gaming system.  The Wiimotes are used to track the movement of objects interacting with the holographic images via infrared sensors.

As shown in this video, a user can interact with the hologram and physically touch it.  A ball can be bounced, raindrops can be felt dripping onto a hand, or even a miniature elephant can be sensed running in the palm of someone’s hand.

This could propel holography into the mainstream because the ability to feel the images allow for multiple applications.  This technology could lead to holographic computer interfaces or video games.  Hospitals could benefit from this technology by having virtual switches which would minimize contamination.  And yes, one day we may even have virtual girlfriends and boyfriends.

Now that leads to a whole new type of movie, probably not the kind George Lucas would be interested in making.