Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Sixth-grader’s science project on venomous lionfish spawns fierce fight over …

Friday, July 25th, 2014

The national media couldn’t get enough of the inspiring story of a young Loxahatchee girl’s science fair project on invasive lionfish, billing it as “breakthrough” research that had stunned scientists.

Well, that last part was right. At least one scientist wound up stunned — a former Florida International University doctoral student who contends Lauren Arrington’s project on how much fresh water the oceangoing fish can withstand was largely based on his earlier work.

Zachary Jud muddied the waters over her work via his Facebook page, where he told colleagues that his name and groundbreaking finding has been lost amid splashy reports of the young science star:

“My lionfish research is going viral … but my name has been intentionally left out of the stories, replaced by the name of the 12-year-old daughter of my former supervisor’s best friend.’’

In Internet statements and interviews, Arrington’s father and Jud’s former supervisor at FIU largely blamed the media for blowing her achievements out of proportion and omitting Jud’s proper credit.

Arrington’s sixth-grade project for King’s Academy in West Palm Beach exposed the lionfish, a native of the Pacific that has invaded South Florida and other Atlantic Ocean waters, to increasingly smaller amounts of salt. The test was intended to determine whether the damaging fish might make its way into Florida’s brackish rivers and estuaries. Her fish survived in water that was nearly fresh.

Her 2012 work wound up in third-place by the assessment of the Palm Beach County Regional Science Fair’s voting board but her findings on a high-profile fish earned some local news stories. Those were quickly picked up and expanded on by national media. Her “breakthrough” discovery was touted on CBS, NBC, NPR, and in newspapers from USA Today to the Washington Post, as well as in journals like The Scientist.

In interviews, she credited her dad, Albrey Arrington, executive director of the Loxahatchee River District, where the fish have been found, with helping her out on the project.

But on Monday, Jud posed a Facebook question to colleagues about how to handle what he saw as a snub: “The little girl did a science fair project based on my PREVIOUSLY PUBLISHED DISCOVERY of lionfish living in low-salinity estuarine habitats.”

Jud’s “former supervisor” at FIU is Craig Layman, now an associate professor in ecology at North Carolina State University. The pair worked together at FIU from the of 2008 until 2013 when Layman was his academic adviser. Jud earned his PhD at FIU in April and has published six papers with Layman, “with a bunch more in the publication pipeline,” Layman wrote on his blog, Abaco Scientist.

Jud’s 2010 discovery of lionfish’s intrusion along the shoreline of the Loxahatchee River estuary near Jupiter was published in a 2011 Aquatic Biology paper. A year later, in Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology, Jud and Layman reported findings from a 10-month mark-recapture study that documented the occurrence of lionfish in water as low as 8 parts per thousand of salinity — far below the 25 parts per million of ocean water.

Lauren’s 2013 science fair project followed that work with testing in an aquarium. It proved the fish in a tank could survive in salt levels even lower than Jud found, at 6 parts per thousand, which almost equates to fresh water.

Jud has contended that Layman and Arrington, a former scientist, are friends who bonded at graduate school at Texas AM.

In an article in The Scientist, Arrington acknowledged that his daughter had read Jud’s 2011 paper and had attended public lectures given by Jud and Layman on the results. “Lauren cited the 2011 Jud et al. paper in her science fair report and display — so she adequately provided credit to the authors,” Arrington wrote in an email to The Scientist.

But that credit wound up lost in most mainstream media accounts of her work.

Jud and Arrington did not reply to interview requests. Layman responded by sending the Herald a timeline of events on his blog.

After the science fair, Layman said he discussed further explorations on lionfish’s salinity tolerance with Lauren and her father. He said she deserved credit for expanding knowledge on the tolerance of a species that threatens native fish.

“At this point, to my knowledge, there had been no published accounts of this salinity tolerance in lionfish. So Lauren had made a contribution to science,” he wrote on his blog. It was a “ laboratory manipulation that explored’’ what he and Jud found in the field.

He said he and her father has asked if she wanted to take part in a more rigorous, publishable study but she declined, “not all that surprising for her age.’’

But Layman said he and Jud were game to conduct field studies and brought University of Miami undergrad Patrick Nichols in to head the field portion of the research in the summer of 2013. Jud led the study and the first authorized paper went into publication in February this year in Environmental Biology of Fishes. The hardy fish survived the 6 parts per thousand salinity test in the field. Lauren’s work was cited in the team’s 2014 paper.

“We acknowledge her here because her project was part of the information that led to the experimental design in this paper,” Layman wrote on his blog.

Jud, in his Facebook post, said he felt his work was drowned out by feel-good story.

“At this stage in my career, this type of national exposure would be invaluable … if only my name was included in the stories. I feel like my hands are tied. Anything I say will come off as an attempt to steal a little girl’s thunder, but it’s unethical for her and her father to continue to claim the discovery of lionfish in estuaries as her own.”

In an email Arrington sent to Jud, printed in The Scientist, Arrington wrote, “We have mentioned you frequently in nearly all interviews … I trust you understand reporters typically make the call on how to build the story to maximize interest.”

Layman also blamed the media for the misunderstanding.

“It is my opinion that this story has been blown out of proportion.. A young student did a really cool science project. It related closely to, and facilitated, a bunch of other important findings about lionfish. I am glad tens of thousands of people now know about Zack’s research and Lauren’s project that never would have otherwise. But it is unfortunate how it played out in such a manner over the last few weeks.”

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Sensationalism of Science: Is Japan’s Fuji in a "Critical State" for an Eruption?

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014

Mt. Fuji in the autumn. skyseeker / Wikimedia Commons

Sometimes, it’s the sales pitch that gets you rather than the actual car. That seems to be the case with the latest rash of media coverage over the “critical state” at Japan’s Fuji. You read the news coverage and you’d think that Fuji will erupt any second now, all thanks to the 2011 Tohoku earthquake that struck off the coast of Japan. Now, I wouldn’t blame you if you got that message — it is exactly what press releases and quotes from the authors make it seem is the case. Dr. Frolent Brenguier, the lead author on a new study that appeared in Science, was quoted as saying “All we can say is that Mount Fuji is now in a state of pressure, which means it displays a high potential for eruption. The risk is clearly higher.” Seems pretty straight forward, doesn’t it? Their research must clearly show that Fuji is now in a state ready to erupt and we know that from some sort of pressure measurement.

Now, it is hard for me to blame the media for not going back and carefully reading the Science article to see if their data supports such grandiose claims. You have to believe that if a paper is published in Science, then it is supported by verifiable data — and for the most part, they are. Like any reputable journal, Science is rigorously peer-reviewed before any article is published. Now, big name journals like Nature and Science do attract media attention. Not only do they want what they see as quality scientific research, but they also want it to be flashy. So, you might have done the best study ever on the eruptive history of Mt. X, but Nature and Science wouldn’t touch it unless you can make it flashy: Is Mt. X a “supervolcano”? Did it change global climate? Will it destroy us all in the future? In a sense, Nature and Science are the Hollywood of science publications — they want the big tentpole papers and the everyone wants to star in one of those.

That is where the danger lies: if you do get published in Science or Nature, you want to get media coverage (because that surely helps your career). How far can you push the interpretations, possibly even from outside the paper itself, to get the attention you desire? (Update: please see my note at the bottom)

Back to the Brenguier and others (2014) study on Mt. Fuji. They examined how the state of pressure in the crust across Japan changed after the massive M9 Tohoku earthquake in 2011. That earthquake released a massive amount of energy, and although it relieved stress near its epicenter, it likely caused stress in the crust to increase in other places as that energy was displaced. By examining how quickly seismic waves move through the crust (which is partially controlled by the state of stress in the crust), they could see where new stress has accumulated. They argue that places with the largest velocity reduction after the Tohoku earthquake are the places where the crust is feeling low effective pressure. This low effective pressure is caused by pressurized fluids, like magma or hydrothermal fluids (i.e., water), in the crust pushing outward on the rocks.

Figure 2 from Brenguier and others (2014) showing the change in seismic velocity across Japan after the M9 2011 Tohoku earthquake. Brenguier and others (2014), Science.

Not surprisingly, the places that saw the largest velocity reduction were places underneath all the active volcanoes across Japan (see right). In contrast, the smallest reduction occurred in places with rigid rocks, like granite. This change in seismic velocity is tiny — even in the areas with the largest change, it was only by ~0.12%. Now, this is where it gets tricky. They state: “The seismic velocity susceptibility to stress can be used as a proxy to the level of pressurization of the hydrothermal and/or magmatic fluids in volcanic areas.” This means that anywhere that either hydrothermal or magmatic fluids are present can experience the large drop in seismic velocities. So, you can measure changes in seismic velocity to understand changes in pressurization of the crust — such as when new magma is intruding or hydrothermal fluids are moving through the crust.

In my mind, that is their key conclusion. It does not mean that the Tohoku earthquake caused the pressurization of the area as such. Rather, that changes in seismic velocity after the earthquake can tell us something about the state of pressurization in the crust. They do go on to say that an earthquake occurred 4 days after the Tohoku temblor, and it happened to be near Fuji (which hasn’t erupted since 1707, making people worry it’s “overdue” — it isn’t), but this correlation is not a piece of their evidence for their conclusion, but rather their way of trying to say the crust was prone to new earthquakes already and Tohoku triggered it. This is a bit of a stretch without further research to support this triggering.

The one thing they never say in the paper is that Fuji is more likely to erupt thanks to the Tohoku earthquake. Never. Not once.

So, why is this the message that we’re being fed in the news? Well, it’s thanks to the authors deciding that a conclusion that is outside their paper is the one that most media-ready. Would the media be all over a study that made the bold claim that changes in seismic velocities can tell us a little something about the state of pressure in the crust? I would venture to say no. Now, if you then say the change after the earthquake puts a big volcano in Japan – a national icon — into a “critical state” that could mean an eruption will occur soon? Stop the presses! Yet, this isn’t the conclusion of the actual Science article at all. I have no way of knowing, but this external “conclusion” about Fuji could have been originally included but was removed in the process of peer-review. I mean, we’ve seen this idea before — that a certain increase in pressure mean Fuji will erupt – but it has never really been shown to be verifiable. We’re actually stuck in a chicken-and-egg loop here: Did the earthquake tell us that pressure is high enough for an eruption (that was going to happen anyway), or did the earthquake add more pressure and make an eruption more likely? Fuji is a dangerous (yet wonderful) volcano, as is any volcano near large population centers, so understanding its behavior and planning for an eruption is important.

This is not to say that the science in the Brenguier and others (2014) article isn’t good science. From what I can tell, it is. However, there is a fine line in my mind between promoting your work and going all P.T. Barnum on everyone. Maybe the quotes were taken out of context (although it seems unlikely). Without understanding what actually triggers an eruption at Fuji (or any volcano for that matter) and without knowing whether the pressure in the crust in these volcanoes is due to magma or hydrothermal fluids, it is definitely a stretch to say that “the risk is clearly higher.” However, it does make much splashier press to lead with “Fuji could erupt” over “seismic waves changed velocity.”

Author’s note: Nick Wigginton is right to point out that Science itself did not promote the Fuji angle. However, Science is being used as a platform by the author’s to promote this idea even if it isn’t in their paper. At what point can a journal reign in the press releases from the authors or authors’ institution if the message they are sending isn’t in line with the published paper? The oddest thing about the paper is that it starts with the supposition that changes in pressure can trigger eruptions, yet then never directly ties that to a potential Fuji eruption. I think it’s this angle, again, that is the “flashiness” that Science and Nature seek – a paper on seismic wave behavior is linked to volcanic behavior, then promoted by the authors in the media as if there is an obvious and direct connection, thanks to the press release from the author’s home institution and author interviews.

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Sixth-Grader’s Science Fair Finding Shocks Ecologists

Monday, July 21st, 2014

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hide captionLauren Arrington’s sixth-grade research project is cited in a science journal.

Courtesy of Lauren Arrington

Lauren Arrington's sixth-grade research project is cited in a science journal.

Lauren Arrington’s sixth-grade research project is cited in a science journal.

Courtesy of Lauren Arrington

When 12-year-old Lauren Arrington heard about her sixth-grade science project, she knew she wanted to study lionfish. Growing up in Jupiter, Fla., she saw them in the ocean while snorkeling and fishing with her dad.

Her project showed that the lionfish can survive in nearly fresh water. The results blew away professional ecologists. The invasive species has no predators on the Florida Coast, so if they were to migrate upstream in rivers, they could pose a threat to the ecosystem.

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hide captionScientists previously underestimated the ability of the lionfish to live in less salty water.

Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

Scientists previously underestimated the ability of the lionfish to live in less salty water.

Scientists previously underestimated the ability of the lionfish to live in less salty water.

Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

“Scientists were doing plenty of tests on them, but they just always assumed they were in the ocean,” Lauren, now 13, tells NPR’s Kelly McEvers. “So I was like, ‘Well, hey guys, what about the river?’ “

In the beginning, she wanted to conduct her test by placing the lionfish in cages at different points in the river, but she had to simplify the project.

“It was just a small, sixth-grade project, and I really didn’t have all the tools necessary,” she says. Her dad, who has a Ph.D. in fish ecology, suggested that she put the fish in tanks instead.

Lauren then put six different lionfish in six different tanks where she could watch her subjects closely. Lauren was given a strict set of rules by the science fair organizers. The most important one: Her fish could not die.

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hide captionLauren Arrington’s science project lowered the salinity in tanks and showed that lionfish can live in nearly fresh water.

Courtesy of Lauren Arrington

Lauren Arrington's science project lowered the salinity in tanks and showed that lionfish can live in nearly fresh water.

Lauren Arrington’s science project lowered the salinity in tanks and showed that lionfish can live in nearly fresh water.

Courtesy of Lauren Arrington

Lionfish had been found to live in water with salt levels of 20 parts per thousand. But no one knew that they could live in water salinity below that.

One of the six lionfish was her control fish, and the rest were the experimental. Every night for eight days, she would lower the salinity 5 parts per thousand in the experimental tanks. On the eighth day of her experiment, she found her experimental fish were living at 6 parts per thousand. She was amazed.

Her research did not stop there. Craig Layman, an ecology professor at North Carolina State University, confirmed Lauren’s results. “He credited a sixth-grader for coming up with his idea,” Lauren says ecstatically. Layman’s findings were published this year in the science journal Environmental Biology of Fishes. Lauren is mentioned in the acknowledgments.

Lauren’s father says he talks about science with her a lot. “We’re a science bunch of dorks in our family,” he tells McEvers.

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Harvard scientists want gene-manipulation debate

Saturday, July 19th, 2014

A powerful new technology could be used to manipulate nature by “editing” the genes of organisms in the wild, enabling researchers to block mosquitoes’ ability to spread malaria, for example, or to make weeds more vulnerable to pesticides, Harvard scientists said Thursday.

In an unusual step, however, the Boston team called for a public debate on the wisdom of its audacious idea, which the scientists say could lead to inadvertent species extinctions, new genes spreading through the environment in unexpected ways, and unforeseen ecological ripple effects.

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The Harvard group, in a paper published in the journal eLife, described a technology called a “gene drive.” It would allow scientists to make changes to the DNA of organisms that would spread rapidly in the wild.

For years, researchers have tinkered with genomes to try to produce a fuel, drug, or crop with a specific quality, but the new technology is not nearly so limited in scope. It is conceived of as a way to alter the world outside the lab or beyond the boundaries of a farm field.

“This is a much more open-ended kind of use, because the context is the environment itself,” said Gregory E. Kaebnick, a research scholar at the Hastings Center, a nonpartisan bioethics research institution in New York, who was not involved in the research. “I would be opposed to playing around with this technology unless there are very significant benefits.”

Science often works quite differently, with new technology developed and deployed before the public has had a chance to fully weigh in, as with genetically modified food.

“We thought it was really kind of important to let the public know that we’re pretty sure this is possible, given everything we know about molecular biology, before we present it as a fait accompli,” said Kevin Esvelt, a technology development fellow at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, a leader of the work.

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Esvelt and his coauthors see enormous potential for gene drives, ranging from helping to stop malaria, a disease that kills more than half a million people each year, to curbing the spread of invasive species.

“I’ve had ecologists . . . say getting rid of the carp from the Great Lakes is one example . . . I might be willing to accept,” said George Church, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School and leader of the work. “It just shows that one ecological problem outweighs another one.”

But without careful forethought and oversight, it is possible that the powerful technology could go awry. People with malicious intent could use a gene drive to try to cause a species to crash or a crop to fail.

Dana Perls, who advocates on food and technology issues for the nonprofit organization Friends of the Earth US, said the unintended effects are a key concern. Perhaps a dramatic reduction in a mosquito population would eliminate a major source of food for a species of bird, disrupting a food chain.

Because gene drives offer the prospect of manipulating many generations of a wild species, she said, the risks have to be very carefully weighed.

That’s why, in addition to the technical scientific paper, a larger group — including ecologists, policy experts, and biologists— simultaneously published a paper in the journal Science outlining the regulatory gaps that need to be filled. They made 10 recommendations to manage the risks. For example, the authors suggest that “reversal drives” that can undo the genetic manipulation be tested before any genetically modified organisms are released.

“This is where I think the debate should start: You will have an opportunity to say, ‘Do we really want to do this?’ and if the answer is yes, what kind of systems do we have in place, what kind of safeguards,” said Todd Kuiken, a senior program associate in science and technology innovation at the nonpartisan Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, who was involved in the work. “I think scientists particularly need to understand there may be technologies that, once you debate them, the public may decide we don’t want to move forward on this.”

The gene drive idea was first proposed a decade ago by Austin Burt, a professor of evolutionary genetics at Imperial College London who saw that a natural mechanism that allows some “selfish genes” to bend evolution’s rules might be a way to change large populations. Those selfish genes use a molecular trick to ensure they are passed on to most members of the next generation, even if they do not have any beneficial effects.

Normally, organisms that reproduce sexually carry two copies of each gene, and each parent hands one copy down to offspring. That means a typical gene has a 50-50 chance of being passed down. An engineered gene drive improves those odds. It contains a modified gene, coupled with an enzyme that will shred the normal, unaltered copy of the gene. When a cell tries to repair this damage, it will often use the unshredded copy, including the gene drive, as a template. That means more than half the offspring — in some organisms nearly all — will carry the new gene.

A team of Harvard researchers realized that a two-year-old genome-editing technology called CRISPR would probably make it possible to engineer gene drives that target a wider range of genes in a wider range of species. They presented the idea in January at a workshop partly funded by the National Science Foundation, which convened diverse thinkers to debate the repercussions.

From that discussion at MIT. scientists decided it was important to present the idea and start a thoughtful public debate, even though the work is in its earliest stages, far from the time when anyone is ready to release organisms into the wild.

Burt, using a different technology, recently showed that in a laboratory, it is possible to create a gene drive that could tip the gender ratio toward males in a mosquito species responsible for malaria transmission in Africa. Such imbalance would help reduce mosquito population and spread of the disease.

“I’m glad people are finally paying attention,” Burt said. “. . . You wouldn’t want unthinking application of it, and you wouldn’t want accidental escapes from a population inside the lab getting outside the lab.”

More health and science coverage:

Slime mold race could provide insights into disease

Scientists hoping to ease interpretation of the DNA ‘book of life”

As the world’s population grows, are we borrowing from mankind’s future?

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NASA scientists say they’re closer than ever to finding life beyond Earth

Thursday, July 17th, 2014

If you believe there must be extraterrestrial life somewhere in the immensity of the universe, here’s some good news: Top NASA scientists agree with you, and at a panel discussion on Monday, they said they were closer than ever to finding out for sure.

Former astronaut and NASA Administrator Charles Bolden set the tenor of the hourlong conversation about how NASA planned to look for life on other planets in his introductory remarks.

“Do we believe there is life beyond Earth?” he asked. “I would venture to say that most of my colleagues here today say it is improbable that in the limitless vastness of the universe we humans stand alone.”

He added that while he was in space back in 1990, he did not encounter any extraterrestrial life forms, but he did look for them – really hard, and all the time.

lRelated Life beyond Earth? NASA's chief scientist would like to find it
Science NowLife beyond Earth? NASA’s chief scientist would like to find itSee all related

Seated on the panel were some of NASA’s top scientists, including Ellen Stofan, NASA’s chief scientist; John Grunsfeld, a former astronaut and NASA’s associate administrator; John Mather, senior project scientist for the James Webb Space Telescope; and Dave Gallagher, director of astronomy and physics at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Sara Seager, a planetary scientist at MIT, and Matt Mountain, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, were also on the panel.

Though some NASA scientists are looking for signs of life in our solar system – most aggressively on Mars, but perhaps soon on one of the ice moons – the scientists on the panel spoke exclusively about looking for signs of life on planets around other stars.

Space experts discuss the search for life in the universe

Space experts discuss the search for life in the universe NASA has put the entire panel discussion about the agency’s search for life in the universe on YouTube. You can watch it right here. NASA has put the entire panel discussion about the agency’s search for life in the universe on YouTube. You can watch it right here.See more videos –>

Thanks to data collected by the Kepler Space Telescope, launched in 2009, scientists now estimate that nearly every star in our galaxy has at least one planet circling it.

The launch of the James Webb Space Telescope in 2018 will help scientists see whether any of those billions of planets have the right chemical fingerprint to suggest they harbor life. Specifically, they are looking for gases in the planet’s atmosphere that could only be produced by life. But even with a telescope the size of James Webb, chances of success are low.

“With the James Webb, we have the first capability of finding life on other planets, but we have to get lucky; we have to beat the odds,” Seager said.

But as the space telescopes launched by NASA get bigger and bigger, the odds of finding life will get better and better. Seager and Gallagher spoke about new technologies in development that may make it easier to find smaller, Earth-sized planets.

Related story: Mapping out the search for life on Jupiters watery moon Europa

Related story: Mapping out the search for life on Jupiter’s watery moon Europa Deborah Netburn Is there life on Jupiter’s icy moon Europa? Scientists would like to find out. Is there life on Jupiter’s icy moon Europa? Scientists would like to find out. ( Deborah Netburn ) –>

The smaller planets that are most similar to our own are incredibly difficult to discern because they shine very faintly compared to their host star. So researchers at JPL are working on creating a sunflower-shaped starshade, which would be launched in tandem with a space telescope. It would block out starlight, making it easier to see the planets around stars.

“We believe we are very close in terms of science and technology to finding another Earth, and signs of life on another world,” Seager said.

There was a question-and-answer session at the end of the panel. One question, posed by a person on social media, stood out: “If scientists do find life on another planet, will the U.S. government let people know?”

Stofan fielded that one. “Of course we would!” she said without hesitation. “That would be so amazingly exciting. We would try to get it out to the public as fast as we can. We want everyone to share in the excitement of discovery.”

As to what you can do to help scientists on their search for life on other planets, Seager said they are working on it.

“I’ve started to get asked that question a lot, and we are working on a better answer for you,” she said. “We are finding untold numbers of people who want to help us.”

For more amazing science news, follow me @DeborahNetburn

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times

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There’s so much that science will never be able to explain

Monday, July 14th, 2014

A solar flare (NASA/EPA)

When I got into science, my goal was ambitious but simple: to devise a theory that could explain “everything,” at least everything about the physical world. I wanted to know The Truth. But alas: Decades spent practicing science taught me a lesson that was both wonderful and humbling: We can’t know everything. We can’t even know what “everything” is or means. If there is a final truth out there, it’s beyond us. Science works under strict boundaries, and as hard as we may try, we can’t go beyond them. To know all answers, we need to start by knowing all questions. And that is simply impossible. Our view of the world will always be incomplete.

This pronouncement may seem strange coming from a practicing theoretical physicist, especially a tireless promoter of the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields to the general public and to today’s students. But it’s time for science to be presented for what it is and not for what we would like it to be. Science, as a very human endeavor, shares many of our most endearing virtues, including our fallibility.

There are two main reasons why science has essential limits. The first comes from the tools we build to investigate the world. We use all sorts of instruments to amplify our vision of nature, to define what we call reality. And tools do serve us well, revealing invisible and unsuspected parts of nature. They bring us galaxies that are billions of light years away, microbes that can kill us, atoms that make up matter. But tools only work within a certain range and precision. We are always going to be partially myopic to the full action. For example, the Large Hadron Collider, the machine at the European Center for Particle Physics that discovered the Higgs boson, can probe energies about 10,000 times that stored in a proton mass. This is an incredible achievement! But our current theories of the universe run all the way to energies 1,000 trillion times that value. Even if we could cover this enormous range, we couldn’t catch everything on the way. Much remains outside our grasp.

The second source of limits is even more problematic. Nature itself offers insurmountable barriers to how much we can know. The speed of light, the fastest possible speed we’ve observed, is still not instantaneous. That means that all information that we collect about the world is in the past. You are seeing this article about one billionth of a second ago, the time it takes for light to travel from the screen to your eyes. You see the sun as it was about eight minutes ago. To look at the sky is to look at the past. Given that the universe is 13.8 billion years old, light traveled a finite distance since the beginning of time. Like fish in a bowl, we live inside a cosmic bubble of information with a radius of about 46 billion light years. (Not 13.8, because the expansion of space stretches the reach of light.) The universe may well continue beyond, just as the ocean continues beyond the horizon we see from the beach. But we can’t see what’s out there. We can’t ever be sure if the universe is infinitely big or infinitely old. We can’t measure “infinite.” We can only answer questions within the range of what we can measure.

There is no “absolutely sure” in science, although we can reach compelling conclusions. We can obtain data with a certain amount of precision and then extrapolate from it using statistics. The age of the universe, the composition of matter and global warming are good examples. Models that we develop to explain the data change as we gather more details. “Reality” is a construction carefully put together from a combination of what our senses and instruments can catch of nature. As our instruments change, what we call reality changes. The universe will be a very different place in 100 years, just as it was 100 years ago. Science is an incredibly successful narrative that we patch together the best way we can. But it should not be sold as perfect or all-powerful.

This is not a defeatist view of science. Quite the contrary, it’s liberating. Science is the only way to make quantitative sense of the physical world. As scientific knowledge advances, we find new and unpredictable ways to understand nature; we can ask questions we couldn’t even have anticipated before; we find new goals to pursue instead of the same old ones. Knowledge is the endless frontier.

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The Trouble With Brain Science

Saturday, July 12th, 2014

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The Science Of Settling: Calculate Your Mate With Moneyball

Thursday, July 10th, 2014

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hide captionWhat do you look for in a partner?

Spiderstock/Getty Images/Vetta

What do you look for in a partner?

What do you look for in a partner?

Spiderstock/Getty Images/Vetta

In case you missed the buzz on Facebook, scientists recently determined that “beer goggles” do in fact exist, though not precisely in the way we thought. Consuming alcohol, it seems, tends to elevate desire and reduce inhibitions more than alter our actual perception of another person’s attractiveness.

But there’s another type of virtual eyewear that many of us spend even more time donning — one that has the opposite effect of beer goggles. Call them “expectancy spectacles” if you’d like, because wearing them causes us to raise our standards and expectations, often unrealistically, of everything from potential mates to job prospects.

The primary culprit behind this altered vision is not booze, but a potent concoction of Hollywood movies, social conditioning and wishful thinking. And fortunately, there are a few scientists on the case.

One is Ty Tashiro, a psychologist specializing in romantic relationships who writes for Discovery Fit and Health. His recent book, The Science of Happily Ever After, explores what “advances in relationship science” can teach us about the partners we choose. Almost 9 in 10 Americans believe they have a soul mate, says Tashiro, but only 3 in 10 find enduring partnerships that do not end in divorce, separation or chronic unhappiness. Clearly something is going wrong — and it starts with our expectations.

That’s because in real life the pool of potential partners looks rather different from the cast of The Bachelorette — something Tashiro hopes to address by putting some cold figures to the mating game, employing an approach similar to the one used by scientists who calculate the chances of life on other planets.

For example, say a bachelorette enters a room of 100 male bachelors who represent the broader U.S population. If she prefers a partner who’s tall (at least 6 feet), then her pool of possible prospects immediately shrinks to 20. If she would like him to be fairly attractive and earn a comfortable income (over $87,000 annually), then she’s down to a single prospect out of 100.

If you choose to specify further traits, such as kindness, intelligence or a particular religious or political affiliation, well, let’s just say we’re going to need a much bigger room. And then, of course, there’s the small matter of whether he actually likes you back.

Such long odds are the product of misplaced priorities, says Tashiro, but it’s not strictly our fault. Our mate preferences have been shaped by natural selection’s obsession with physical attractiveness and resources as well as the messages our friends, families and favorite shows transmit about sweethearts and soul mates. And it is at the start of relationships, when we need to make smart, long-term decisions, that we are least likely to do so because we’re in the throes of lust, passion and romance.

Or, as Tashiro puts it, returning to our alcohol analogy: “It would seem wise to hand off the keys to someone with more lucidity until your better sensibilities return.”

Which is why Tashiro advocates a new approach to dating, one that is not so much about lowering standards as giving yourself better ones. Call it “Moneyballing” relationships (Tashiro does); it’s all about finding undervalued traits and assets in the dating market. And, just like with baseball, it starts with trying to ignore the superficial indices of value — attractiveness, wealth — in favor of hidden attributes with a stronger correlation to long-term relationship success.

Citing research that finds no reliable link between income level or physical attractiveness and relationship satisfaction, Tashiro steers his readers toward traits such as agreeableness. With married couples, he points out, “liking declines at a rate of 3 percent a year, whereas lust declines at a rate of 8 percent per year,” so the smarter, long-term investment is finding someone you genuinely like. Plus, he adds, studies also suggest that agreeable partners are in fact “better in bed” and less likely to cheat over the long haul.

But can nice guys and gals really finish first? And is it possible to make thoughtful, strategic choices when it comes to relationships?

Perhaps you agree with Crash Davis, Kevin Costner’s character in Bull Durham, who doesn’t “believe in quantum physics when it comes to matters of the heart.” But that shouldn’t mean you ignore the science altogether, especially when it can improve your chances of hitting a home run.

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Survey Finds Math, Science Grads Earn Top Dollar

Tuesday, July 8th, 2014

What you study — math and science are a plus — seems to matter more than whether your alma mater is public or private when it comes to finding a high-paying job after college, according to a report released Tuesday by the Education Department.

The survey of the class of 2008, by the National Center for Education Statistics, provides an interesting snapshot of the nation’s educated elite following a crushing economic recession: Overall, college grads reported lower unemployment rates compared with the national average, although black and Asian college graduates were twice as likely to be out of work than their white classmates. College grads from private four-year schools earned about the same as those from public four-year schools, about $50,000 a year.

But while a paltry 16 percent of students took home degrees in science, technology, engineering or math, or STEM disciplines, those who did were paid significantly better — averaging $65,000 a year compared with $49,500 of graduates of other degrees.

The findings are based on a survey of 17,110 students conducted in 2012, about four years after the students obtained their bachelor’s degrees.

The survey found a strong correlation between earning money and highly specialized degrees. More than 95 percent of grads who studied computer and information sciences, for example, were employed full-time at the time of the survey and earned $72,600 on average. Engineering students reported similar job and salary prospects. That’s compared with a humanities graduate who was more likely to report working multiple jobs and earn a full-time salary averaging only $43,100.

The report also pointed to a correlation between being white or Asian and male and having a higher salary.

Asian graduates reported earning more than other ethnicities, averaging $62,500 in full-time jobs compared with $47,300 earned by Hispanics, $48,800 by blacks and $52,400 by whites. Likewise, male grads reported earning more — $57,800 on average — than their female classmates in full-time jobs, who averaged $47,400.

The study doesn’t explain the disparities in pay, which could be attributed to different fields of study.

C.N. Le, a sociologist at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, said Asian students are gravitating toward career fields in math, science and technology that are initially higher paying, which likely explains the higher average salaries by Asian grads. But they might be facing the higher unemployment rates — almost 12 percent compared with 5.5 percent of white graduates — because of visa issues or policies by American businesses favoring U.S. citizens.

According to the Pew Research Center, nearly three-quarters of Asian-American adults were born abroad.

Le said there also is a “glass-ceiling effect” in the math, science and technology fields. “In a lot of cases, STEM jobs have fewer promotion ladders than other positions” in areas like finance or advertising, he said.

Black college grads faced a similar unemployment rate of almost 12 percent, while 8.5 percent of Hispanic grads were out of work, according to the survey. The Education Department doesn’t surmise why that might be, although one liberal-leaning research group says racism still plagues minority graduates.

“The Great Recession has been hard on all recent college graduates, but it has been even harder on black recent graduates,” concluded the Center for Economic and Policy Research in a study it released last May.

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The science of fireworks explained: Chemical reactions at 1000 feet

Sunday, July 6th, 2014

All across the country, Americans will wrap up their Fourth of July celebrations by watching the sky light up with fireworks. If you’re going to be one of them, you have chemistry to thank.

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Fireworks displays have become increasingly sophisticated and spectacular, but the chemical reactions that make them possible are pretty basic, according to John Conkling, an adjunct chemistry professor at Washington College in Chestertown, Md., and past executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Assn. Conkling literally wrote the book on fireworks — it’s called “Chemistry of Pyrotechnics: Basic Principles and Theory,” and it was first published in 1985.

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As Conkling explains in the video above, all fireworks have two essential ingredients — a chemical that’s rich in oxygen (different types of these chemicals produce different colors when they burn) and a chemical that serves as the fuel (different fuels burn at different rates and temperatures).

“Without chemistry, you wouldn’t have the burning mixtures, Conkling says. “Without the burning mixtures, you wouldn’t have fireworks.”

Once these mixtures are made, they are packed into an aerial shell that’s about as big as a snowcone. This cardboard contraption has a pocket of black powder on the bottom, which propels the shell skyward. Inside the pocket is a time fuse that connects to a black powder bursting charge. 

When the time fuse burns away and the bursting charge explodes, it ignites an array of “effect pellets.” These pellets — ranging from the size of a pea to the size of a marble — produce the colors and visual effects that audiences crave.

The entire shell fits inside a cylindrical mortar tube that points the package up toward the sky. 

In the video, Conkling (wearing safety glasses!) takes a blowtorch to small piles of powder. A pile containing strontium chloride burns red, a pile made with barium acetate burns green and a pile with copper oxide burns with a blue tint. When “moderately coarse magnesium” is added to the mixture, the combustion produces white sparks.

“Everything you see in a fireworks display is chemistry in action,” he says in the video, which was produced by the American Chemical Society.

In an interview with the PBS program “NOVA,” Conkling said researchers are working to create fireworks that burst in colors like lime green, violet and hot pink. They are also trying to develop shells that will burst in the shape of letters, paving the way for pyrotechnic words.

Conkling’s childhood fascination with fireworks has propelled him through a career that produced eight patents. His work spans both military and civilian uses, but in his view, fireworks are valuable even when they aren’t practical.

“Fireworks make people happy,” he says in the video. “There’s something about watching the night sky explode in color and sparks and noise that I think gets really deep in the human soul.” 

Follow me on Twitter @LATkarenkaplan for more on the hidden science in our lives. 

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times

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