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January 24, 2015 in News: Europe, China issue call for joint science mission

Sunday, January 25th, 2015

One of two Double Star spacecraft developed for a joint ESA-China science mission is seen in a pre-launch sun illumination test in 2004. Credit: CNSA/CAST/CSSAR

Europe and China are planning a joint robotic space mission for launch in 2021, and officials are asking scientists to propose projects aimed at research in astronomy, exploring the solar system, or investigations in fundamental physics.

The European Space Agency and the Chinese Academy of Sciences released a joint call for mission proposals Monday after crafting an outline for a cooperative space project during two workshops held in China and Denmark last year.

The mission must aim to be ready for launch in 2021, and proposals are due March 16. Officials plan to select a proposal for study in late 2015, with final approval for full development expected in 2017.

The mission can pursue any subject in space science except for exploration of the moon or Mars, which are covered in a different division of ESA’s science program, according to Fabio Favata, head of the space agency’s science planning and community coordination office.

European and Chinese researchers presented plans at joint workshops last year for missions in astronomy, solar physics, space weather and gravitational science.

The mission will have some restrictions, according to the solicitation posted on ESA’s website.

Artist’s concept of ESA’s LISA Pathfinder spacecraft scheduled for launch in mid-2015. One concept proposed by European and Chinese scientists calls for building a satellite based on LISA Pathfinder for use in geodetic research. Credit: ESA

Each proposal must have signed by principal investigators from China and an ESA member state, and the spacecraft’s scientific payload has to be jointly developed by European and Chinese teams.

The spacecraft should weigh less than 300 kilograms — about 660 pounds — and should be designed for a two- or three-year mission. The satellite’s science payload should come in at less than 60 kilograms, or 132 pounds.

ESA and China are also prohibiting the use of sensitive U.S.-made spacecraft components that fall under export control restrictions. The U.S. government restricts some high-tech equipment deemed to have military utility from launching on Chinese rockets.

The mission is considered a “small-class” project by ESA. Such missions have a cost cap of around 50 million euros, or $56 million, in ESA’s budget.

China is expected to contribute a similar level of funding to the mission.

The call for proposals does not specify whether the spacecraft should be manufactured in Europe or China. The mission could launch on a European Vega booster, a Soyuz rocket, or China’s Long March 2C or Long March 2D launcher.

In a time when U.S. cooperation with China on space projects is outlawed, ESA has sought closer ties to Chinese space program.

Europe and China developed and launched two satellites in 2003 and 2004 for the Double Star mission, the first collaborative scientific project between the space agencies. Double Star measured processes in Earth’s magnetosphere and monitored magnetic bubble’s response to fluctuations in solar activity.

ESA and China are also evaluating the possibility of sending a European astronaut to China’s space station once it is assembled in Earth orbit.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

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Colburn Earth Science Museum moving into downtown spotlight – Asheville Citizen

Sunday, January 25th, 2015

One of Asheville’s oldest but most overlooked attractions is making a million dollar move down the street to a more visible downtown location.

Colburn Earth Science Museum is moving from a cramped basement space in Pack Place west on Patton Avenue to the bottom floor at the Callen Center, better known as the Wells Fargo bank building, on Pritchard Park this summer.

“This is going to be a sign in our community that we support science and science literacy, that we believe in the future, that we want to give kids the tools they need to meet the challenges of the 21st century,” said Vicky Ballard, the museum’s executive director.

The Colburn will become the first new tenant in the building, which promises to become an educational and entrepreneurial hub in coming years. While students, families and other can wander through some 8,000 feet of exhibit space when the Colburn is fully built out, entrepreneurs on the third floor will be working on new climate data ventures at The Collider, a new business collaborative.

Asheville already has a reputation as Beer City thanks to the explosive growth in craft breweries. Could Asheville win another epithet as Brain City with the Colburn and The Collider in the same location?

Robin Cape, the former City Council member who heads The Collider, thinks so.

“It’s a perfect fit. With a climate business center matched with an earth science museum, we have the potential for an innovation district downtown,” Cape said.

After voting to move out of Pack Place in March 2014, the board of directors started scouting for a bigger, better space.

“We looked in Woodfin and we thought about out in Biltmore Park, but we were really looking for somewhere downtown,” said Jon Neumann, chairman of the Colburn board.

The Colburn found the right place last summer, connecting with Cape, who in turn put museum officials in touch with Claire Callen. A Miami real estate investor, Callen purchased the Wells Fargo property across from Pritchard Park for $2.8 million in December 2012. They soon struck a deal that the nonprofit museum could live with.

“For a museum to be successful, it needs foot traffic,” Neumann said. “The corner of the Wells Fargo building with the windows right on the park, it doesn’t get much better than that.”

With its lease expiring June 7 with the city of Asheville, the Colburn plans to open offices, gift shop and limited exhibits on Pritchard later in June. The remainder of the space will be renovated for exhibits, due to open January 2016.

Making its move

The 55-year-old Colburn is more than minerals, with a greater reach than just dusty rocks. Kids from schools across the region flock to its classroom and exhibits for hands-on demonstrations to learn about electricity, earthquakes, geology, climate, oceans and other physical sciences.

Since 1992, Colburn has enjoyed a rent-free space in a windowless 8,640 square feet in Pack Place’s basement that is about 11 percent of the building. The museum has only about 3,000 square feet of display space and classroom.

Colburn operates on an annual budget of around $313,000 including money from the North Carolina Grassroots Science Collaborative. In the fiscal year 2013-14, the museum saw 29,502 visitors through the door and served another 7,348 in outreach classes that the Colburn’s seven staffers take to area schools.

Those numbers were down last year with a bad winter forcing many schools to cancel scheduled field trips.

Last year, the City of Asheville declared the Pack Place nonprofit that operated the space in default and wanted to sign leases directly with the tenants — the Asheville Art Museum, Diana Wortham Theatre and Colburn.

The Health Adventure, an original tenant, mounted ambitious plans in 2003 to build a new museum on Broadway. When financing collapsed, The Health Adventure retreated to the former Biltmore Square Mall in 2011, and finally closed two years later.

Wary of making the same mistakes, Colburn’s board of directors weighed their options. They voted in March to move, even though they weren’t sure where. “The whole default thing caught everybody off guard, we had an option to stay, but as board, we thought, ‘why not look for a better place?’” Neumann said.

Phase I will move the museum’s offices and gift shop into the Callen Center with a few exhibits highlighting what’s to come. Neumann estimates those costs of moving at around $250,000.

By the time all of the 8,000 square foot exhibit space is renovated, the total bill will likely run around $1 million, Neumann estimated.

More than dusty rocks

Like the geology it portrays, the Colburn has evolved over time. The museum was born out of a private gem and mineral collection of Burnham Colburn, a bank president who built one of the first homes in Biltmore Forest around 1920.

An avid rockhound, Colburn scoured the mountains, mining for rare emeralds near Hiddenite and blood red rubies from Cowee. In time, Colburn would amass perhaps the world’s largest private collection of rocks, minerals and Indian artifacts.

After donating much of his collection to the University of South Carolina, Colburn left about 300 of his finest specimens for a local museum at his death in 1959.

From its first home on Coxe Avenue, the gem collection moved to the basement of the Asheville Civic Center in 1976 and then to Pack Place.

Connecting students with science in everyday life is the mission of the Colburn, which changed its name to the Colburn Earth Science Museum in 2004. While geology, evolution, climate change can raise controversy in some quarters, the Colburn tries to ground children and their families with a love of the physical sciences, Ballard said.

“Science has gotten more controversial in recent years, and we do try to stay sensitive to the populations we serve, but we follow the science,” she said. “We want to link kids with science in their everyday lives.”

That’s what happened for Ballard. She remembers touring the Colburn as a young girl growing up in Asheville, when the museum was down on Coxe Avenue in an old auto showroom next to the N.C. State University Mineral Laboratories.

Growing up on a farm outside Weaverville, she had been used to digging these rocks out of the field. Now, she saw same the rocks on display in a museum, split open and polished to show off their glittering best. “Here was something I had seen as work shown in all its beauty. It was truly an epiphany.”

Ballard and her staff are already looking forward to the opening exhibit coming next year in the new space, focusing on Southern Appalachian geology and culture, making connections between minerals and modern life.

For example, Silicon Valley, the world’s computer capital, would scarcely exist without a secret ingredient from Spruce Pine.

Mitchell County supplies the high-quality quartz that is a critical component in construction of silicon wafers that provide the brains of our computers and other devices.

Making those connections come alive for students is vital to teachers like Meredith Mitchell of Invest Collegiate Imagine, a new charter school off Brevard Road. Mitchell brought her fourth- and fifth-graders to the museum last week for the first time.

“It’s impressive. The only way I could do this in the classroom is show them a video. Here they can actually handle the rocks.”

Ballard and her staff would like to see more interactive displays — and better security in the new location. A popular seismography exhibit that allowed students to generate their own miniature earthquakes was closed after the scientific instrument was vandalized in off-hours.

Neumann feels confident that supporters can raise the money needed to finance the move and expansion. “I would like to see something like Charlotte has with Discovery Place,” he said. “We want it to even more interactive and technology-based so we can give kids the building blocks they need for the future. But it’s going to take the whole community to do that.”


For more about the Colburn Earth Science Museum or how to donate to its move, visit

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Bill Belichick dropped science knowledge in surreal press conference

Sunday, January 25th, 2015

On Saturday, Bill Belichick addressed Deflategate in a press conference. His main point? That the New England Patriots “followed every rule, to the letter” regarding the inflation of their footballs during the AFC Championship game.

Belichick said the Patriots recreated a normal game day scenario and found that the pressure of the footballs naturally changes when they are taken outside. (However, he did not address why the Colts footballs weren’t affected in the same way.)

He explained:

“That process of creating a tackiness, a texture, the right feel, whatever that feel is — let’s just say it’s a sensation for the quarterback — that process elevates the psi approximately one pound based on what our study showed which was multiple balls, multiple examples in the process…. That’s done in a controlled climate. The footballs are prepared in our locker room, they’re delivered to the officials’ locker room, which is a controlled environment. Whatever we have here is what we have there. When the footballs go out onto the field in the game conditions, whatever those conditions are whether it’s hot and humid, whether it’s cold and damp, whether it’s cold and dry … that’s where the footballs are played with and that’s where the measurements would be different than what they are in a controlled environment, and that’s what we found.”

“We all know that air pressure is a function of the atmospheric conditions. It’s a function of that. So if there’s activity in the ball relative to the rubbing process, I think that explains why when we gave it to the officials and the officials put it at say [12.5 psi], if that’s in fact what they did, that once the ball reached its equilibrium state it probably was closer to [11.5] psi.”

But, really, the presser was so much more than science.

It included this innuendo.

And this snarky retort.

And this My Cousin Vinny reference.

And, predictably, the Internet went nuts.

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Which state f*cking loves science the most?

Friday, January 23rd, 2015

It’s tough to figure out which US states love science the most. But it’s a little bit easier to figure out which states f*cking love science the most.

Only one state can f*cking love science the most.

Since starting in March 2012, the site “I F*cking Love Science” (IFLS) has turned into a global phenomenon. Led by Elise Andrew, the site’s content ranges from recaps of new scientific studies to meme-ish, science-flavored jokes. Counting the site’s readers may not be a good proxy for actual scientific knowledge, but it’s a decent way to measure enthusiasm for science-flavored pop culture.

And right now, content from IFLS’s Facebook page fills the feeds of almost 20 million people — with 7.6 million of them in the US. To put that in perspective, more Facebook users like IFLS than like American Idol. If you entered a room with 100 random American Facebook users, four of them would be IFLS fans.

A sample of popular Facebook pages.

So which states f*cking love science the most? Because raw numbers would favor the most populous states (California has a mind-blowing 1,080,000 IFLS fans), we instead calculated IFLS fans as a percentage of each state’s total Facebook population. You can find the data here.

Colorado f*cking loves science the most. See where your state ranks.

In Colorado, 6.88 percent of all Facebook users like IFLS, the most of any state.

The top 10 IFLS states.

Western states dominated the top 10, along with Vermont.

By contrast, the bottom 10 IFLS states skew toward the southern and central United States. Mississippi was the least enthusiastic about IFLS, with less than one-third of the enthusiasm of Colorado. New Jersey is another notable east coast outlier.

The bottom 10 IFLS states.

If your state wasn’t on the graph, you can see all the rankings here.

There’s a significant gap between the biggest IFLS states and the smallest. Of course, there are a number of possible reasons for the gap, including:

  • Facebook users in certain regions might be more or less likely to follow pages
  • Facebook users in certain regions might be more or less educated, encouraging them to like more or fewer educational pages
  • People in certain regions might be more or less likely to use Facebook, skewing the sample of the general population

However, comparing the IFLS data with numbers for History Channel fans suggests there may be varying science enthusiasm by state.

History draws a different national audience. And West Virginia loves history the most.

A map of History Channel fans on Facebook.

The History Channel has far fewer fans on Facebook than IFLS, topping out in the United States with 2.2 million followers. That means that IFLS beats the History Channel in every state, including ones where IFLS isn’t particularly popular.

That all said, the map of the History Channel’s Facebook popularity looks very different from our IFLS map. A graph further highlights the disparity:

A graph of History Channel fans on Facebook.

The data suggests that different states have genuinely different interests (at least when it comes to their edutainment). West Virginia, which had the 13th lowest percentage of IFLS fans, was the most passionate about history. Meanwhile, Colorado, the top state for IFLS, had the 12th lowest percentage of History Channel fans. California ranked 10th for IFLS fans; for History channel fans, it was 46th.

Just as IFLS isn’t a proxy for scientific education or interest, the History Channel’s Facebook fanbase isn’t necessarily a proxy for historical knowledge. However, it does reflect an enthusiastic interest in history-flavored entertainment. Generally, scientifically inclined states were less enthusiastic about history, and vice versa. Alaska was an exception, with high ranks on both Facebook pages.

Does this prove that different states might have different approaches toward science and history? Possibly. If nothing else, it adds some context to the next science — or history — meme you see on Facebook.

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How Food and Drink Make Us Go Mmm

Friday, January 23rd, 2015

Kent Berridge, a neuroscientist at the University of Michigan, began working on the pleasure problem in the 1980s. Scientists at that point thought that dopamine, the powerful neurotransmitter associated with movement and motivation, was the brain’s “pleasure chemical.” But Berridge grew suspicious when, in an experiment, rats that had been given a dopamine suppressant still licked their lips when drinking sugar water—basically, the rodent equivalent of a spontaneous smile. If rats were smiling without dopamine, something else had to be involved. After years of experimentation, Berridge isolated a pleasure circuit in the brains of rodents, which hinged on knots of neurons near the brainstem he dubbed “hedonic hot spots.” When firing, they generate intense pleasure. So far, they have not been isolated in humans, but Berridge postulates they are a feature of mammalian brains.

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Intel Science Talent Search finalists: 9 of 40 from Bay Area

Friday, January 23rd, 2015

While visiting his native India, Cupertino High School senior Tanay Tandon noticed just how many miles people traveled for medical care.

So fusing his background in computer science with his interest in microbiology, he developed a type of software that uses a smartphone camera, armed with a magnifying lens, to analyze blood samples for signs of parasitic infection or other health problems. “It’s a low-cost, portable way to diagnose blood cells,” said Tandon, 18. “It has a lot of potential as a product deployed in rural areas.”

It also earned him a spot as a finalist in the Intel Science Talent Search, one of the country’s most prestigious and competitive awards in science and technology for high school students. While the 40 finalists come from 36 schools in 18 states, nine hail from Bay Area schools — the most ever.

Three students at Harker School in San Jose are finalists. Two finalists are from Dougherty Valley High School in San Ramon. Lynbrook High School in San Jose, Cupertino High School, Amador Valley High School in Pleasanton and Castilleja School in Palo Alto each have one.

They were selected from a pool of 300 semifinalists announced Jan. 7 and more than 1,800 initial entries. Each student pursued an independent project in technology development, research or innovation, often aiming to address a long-standing research question or solve a practical problem.

This year, California surpassed New York in the number of finalists it will send to Washington, D.C. California has 11 total, including the nine Bay Area students. New York, historically a strong state in the Science Talent Search, has eight finalists this year.

The Bay Area’s dominance in the finalist pool comes as no surprise to Chris Nikoloff, head of the Harker School.

“Generally speaking, the Bay Area values education, values science, and sees its applicability in the world and promotes it at many levels,” he said.

To their teachers and mentors, the finalists are indeed some of the Bay Area’s best and brightest.

“He’s really in another league at this point,” Cupertino High School computer science teacher Eric Ferrante said of Tandon. “He has been the kind of student to push through barriers and carve his own way.”

Tandon’s project is indicative of the types of endeavors the Intel Science Talent Search honors. Some students pursued their projects in a university research laboratory, like Dougherty Valley High School’s Augustine Chemparathy, 17, who spent two summers at the Carnegie Institute studying how microscopic algae could be used to synthesize biofuels.

“I felt that they were a really viable, clean alternative energy source,” Chemparathy said, crediting the support he received from the professors he worked with.

To be considered for the Intel Science Talent Search, each applicant submitted a summary of results and research findings in the style of a professional, peer-reviewed scientific journal article.

“That is a very challenging thing to do,” stressed Anita Chetty, chair of the science department at the Harker School.

Dozens of Bay Area students rose to that challenge, including 18-year-old senior Rohith Kuditipudi, one of Harker School’s finalists. For his project, Kuditipudi came up with a new computer method to analyze how liver cells turn on and off genes in a syndrome called nonalcoholic fatty liver disease.

“I wanted to look at a biological problem where more information was needed,” he said.

Despite his achievement, Kuditipudi was not expecting the phone call Tuesday night announcing that he was a finalist.

“It was a complete surprise,” he said. “It still hasn’t sunk in yet.”

Lynbrook High School senior Somya Khare, 18, echoed Kuditipudi’s sentiment. She also is looking forward to sharing her research findings on bacterial growth and cell division, which she conducted last summer and fall at Stanford University.

“It feels really exciting,” said Khare. “I’m glad I have the opportunity to present my work to amazing and talented scientists in Washington, D.C.”

Khare is referring to the panel of scientists who will hear all the finalists present their research in March during an all-expenses paid trip to the capital. The judges will select three students each for third-, second- and first-place honors. On top of the $7,500 each finalist receives, three third-place winners will each receive $35,000, three second-place winners will receive $75,000, and three first-place winners will receive $150,000.

Other area finalists include Kriti Lall of Castilleja School in Palo Alto, Jihyeon (Janel) Lee of Amador Valley High in Pleasanton, Saranesh Prembabu of Dougherty Valley High in San Ramon, and Andrew Jin and Steven Michael Wang, both of The Harker School in San Jose.

The Society for Science and the Public, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., began the Science Talent Search in 1942. Intel has been a title sponsor since 1998. Though there will be only three first-place winners announced in March, some Bay Area educators boasted that the finalists, regardless of how they fare, already have left their mark on California.

“These students are using their academic knowledge to solve real-world problems,” said Nikoloff. “It’s amazing.”

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Hidden Hurdle Looms for Women in Science

Wednesday, January 21st, 2015

Why do some disciplines have more male researchers than female ones? The differences can’t be chalked up to mere quirks: in some fields, notably mathematics and science, women face barriers that do not seem to limit men in the same way.

A study published on January 16 in Science suggests that one hurdle may stem from popular opinion. Women—at least in the United States—are less likely to pursue fields in which success is thought to arise primarily from raw aptitude, rather than hard work.

“Pervasive cultural associations link men, but not women, with raw intellectual brilliance,” says Sarah-Jane Leslie, a philosopher at Princeton University in New Jersey and a co-author of the study. The more researchers associate innate talent with success in their discipline, the more likely women PhDs will be under-represented in that field, her analysis concludes.

The relationship holds true for the humanities as well as for mathematics and the sciences. Philosophers, musicians and mathematicians believed most highly in the importance of talent and had the smallest ratio of female doctorates; Educators, psychologists and neuroscientists, who emphasized innate ability least, had the highest.

Leslie and her colleagues compared PhDs earned in the United States in 2011 with results from a survey of 1,820 faculty members, postdoctoral fellows and graduate students mainly from nine US universities. Other hypotheses they tested—that the number of working hours, selectivity, or emphasis on abstract versus empathetic thinking for a given field affect how many men and women it attracts—could not predict the gender ratio of PhD recipients.

However, the study methods had limitations. For example, researchers determined the intellectual demands, or ”selectivity” of a field, in part by examining scores from the Graduate Record Exam. But this test may measure characteristics other than ability.

Potential overlap
The authors admit that theirs is not the only explanation for why some fields have fewer female doctorates. But they posit that, to attract more women, academics should refrain from lauding giftedness over industriousness. “If we can adjust these attitudes, we are confident that this will lead to an increased diversity across the whole range of academic disciplines,” Leslie says.

This is a provocative but tricky verdict. “The authors have done a careful analysis with what they have gathered,” says Giles Hooker, a statistician at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. “But you have to be careful when you have few data points.” Initially, the researchers sent out 28,210 surveys, but just 1,820—or 6.5%—of people contacted returned completed responses deemed usable for the study. Furthermore, the schools surveyed were not randomly chosen; rather, “they represent institutions that we felt epitomized ones producing the bulk of American researchers”, says Andrei Cimpian, a psychologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and one of the study’s co-authors.

Abstract reasoning skills or empathetic insight could also overlap with the perception of having natural talent for a subject. In other words, “the findings may be revealing the idiosyncratic interpretations of ‘talent’ respondents had, but not telling us whether there might be different ways of asking questions within a discipline that might influence participation by gender,” says Cassidy Sugimoto, an information scientist at the Indiana University School of Informatics and Computing in Bloomington.

Despite the gender disparities in PhDs conferred for particular fields, women have made substantial gains in academia overall in the past few decades. In 2010, women earned 40% of all doctorates, compared with just 11% in 1970. And women receive half of all maths and science doctorates granted in the United States.

Retaining and promoting women in academic research, however, has not improved on a par with this advance. Even in countries with greater gender parity in research, the proportion of women in top academic posts is low given the number of female doctorate holders.

Although the new study shows “compelling and thought-provoking results for questions that should be asked”, says Sugimoto, “it doesn’t help us figure out how to retain women researchers who do overcome hidden biases.” After all, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is better known as a politician than as a physicist.

This article is reproduced with permission and was first published on January 15, 2015.

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Parents: Your students’ survival guide for science fair

Wednesday, January 21st, 2015

Spangler and his team share steps you need to take to turn a fun demonstration into a real science experiment. 9NEWS at 6 and 7 a.m. 01/20/15.

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US senators aim to force high-profile vote on climate science

Wednesday, January 21st, 2015

The political war over climate science is flaring up again on Capitol Hill this week as the U.S. Senate debates a bill that would approve the highly controversial Keystone XL pipeline. Pipeline opponents, many of whom oppose the project because they say it would accelerate climate change, are trying to secure votes on a number of largely symbolic amendments affirming the Senate’s belief that climate change is real and human-caused and that policymakers should address it.

The pipeline opponents, including a number of Democratic senators and one independent, hope that their push will put Republicans in a politically perilous position: Either they block votes on the climate amendments and get accused of dodging the issue, or they allow votes and have to take a position on a sensitive issue with a core Republican voting bloc—self-described conservatives who don’t believe human activity is seriously affecting Earth’s climate system. The Keystone debate, which is expected to last several weeks, comes shortly after government researchers concluded that 2014 was the planet’s hottest year on record.

Senators Bernie Sanders (I–VT), Brian Schatz (D–HI), Jeff Merkley (D–OR), Tim Kaine (D–VA), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D–RI) all have filed climate-related amendments. And Democrats aren’t hiding the reasoning behind their strategy. “We’re going to have a vote to find out who the climate change deniers in the U.S. Senate really are,” said Senator Charles Schumer (D–NY), the third-ranking Senate Democrat, during a Capitol Hill press conference today. “Do they deny that human activity has helped create climate change? Stay tuned. We’ll see.”

Schumer noted that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R–KY) had pledged an “open” process to let both parties offer amendments. “We intend to hold him to that promise,” Schumer said.

With floor debate on some nonclimate amendments kicking off today, however, it’s still unclear which of the amendments, if any, will get votes—much less whether they can pass. McConnell said last week that he wouldn’t block a vote on one of the climate amendments.

The amendments, if adopted, would alter S.1, a mostly Republican-sponsored bill that would approve a key permit for building a segment of Keystone XL, which would bring crude oil to the United States from Canada’s oil sands region. Whereas Republicans overwhelmingly back the permit’s approval, most Democrats oppose it; some Democrats oppose the pipeline outright, while others say Congress should leave the decision to the executive branch, which has been pondering the issue for several years amid legal and political wrangling over the pipeline’s route. The White House has threatened to veto a version of S.1 that has already passed the House of Representatives, but Republicans have suggested that they might try to attach the Senate bill to must-pass legislation, such as a spending bill, that President Barack Obama might be reluctant to veto.

Many Democrats worry that the pipeline’s construction would significantly worsen global warming by encouraging Canadian oil companies to expand mining in the oil sands, an energy- and water-intensive process that produces more carbon emissions than conventional oil drilling. Sanders, an independent who is allied with Democrats, argued last week that the Senate should be cutting greenhouse gas emissions, boosting energy efficiency and renewable energy use, or investing in more research and development or rail transportation. “This bill does none of that,” he said on the Senate floor on 13 January. “In fact, what the Keystone pipeline does is move us in exactly the wrong direction.”

Whether Keystone XL would actually significantly speed up climate change depends on how much it promotes further development of the oil sands, studies suggest. (The scientific community has been divided on the issue, as Jeff Tollefson reported in Nature in 2013.) An environmental assessment conducted by the U.S. State Department found that the pipeline probably wouldn’t have a major impact. Environmental groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council dispute that analysis, arguing that, without Keystone XL, falling oil prices could make it uneconomical for oil companies to keep mining the oil sands.

The amendments

The proposed climate amendments—just a few of at least 50 that Senators would like to get votes—address a number of issues.

Sanders’s amendment would declare the “sense of Congress” that lawmakers are “in agreement with the opinion of virtually the entire worldwide scientific community” that climate change is real, that it’s human-caused, that it’s already causing problems domestically and globally, that the United States needs to transition to cleaner forms of energy, and that time is running out before the world suffers “irreparable harm.”

One of Schatz’s three amendments asks whether it’s “the sense of the Senate that climate change—(1) is real; (2) is caused by humans; (3) is urgent; and (4) is solvable.” A second asks whether the Senate agrees that global temperatures have risen, that the rise is already affecting the climate, that the United States should shift to cleaner energy, and that the United States should cut greenhouse gas emissions and encourage other countries to follow suit. His third amendment and Kaine’s amendment make similar statements to the other two.

And an amendment offered by Merkley asks lawmakers to endorse statements made by a variety of scientific organizations and government agencies saying that climate change is real and that humans are driving it. The groups include the National Academy of Sciences, AAAS (publisher of ScienceInsider), the American Geophysical Union, the American Meteorological Society, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and NASA.

Whitehouse’s amendment takes a veiled jab at Senator James Inhofe (R–OK), the new chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, who has called climate change a “hoax.” The amendment states that it’s “the sense of the Senate that climate change is real and not a hoax.”

If votes on any of the amendments were to occur, it wouldn’t be the first time that members of Congress have had to take a stance on climate science. Early in 2014, a House committee rejected, on a party-line vote, a similar amendment offered by Representative Jan Schakowsky (D–IL). In 2011, former Representative Henry Waxman (D–CA) tried to attach a climate science amendment to a GOP-sponsored bill that would have struck down the Environmental Protection Agency’s power to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. The amendment failed on a mostly party-line 240 to 184 vote.

With the 2016 presidential race looming and several Republican senators mulling presidential runs—including Ted Cruz (R–TX), Marco Rubio (R–FL), and Rand Paul (R–KY)—any climate vote could carry additional political importance. Democrats and their environmental allies are sure to use a “no” vote against any Republican senator who becomes the GOP nominee. But a “yes” vote could be perilous for candidates running in Republican candidate-selection primaries and caucuses, which often hinge on winning over tea party and conservative Republicans. These voters, according to polling data, are more likely to deny climate change than their liberal or moderate GOP counterparts.

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High schoolers put brains to test – U

Sunday, January 18th, 2015

San Diego’s Science Bowl teams

Torrey Pines High School: President- Abhishek Chakraborty, 11th grade; Vice president — Alex Krotz, 11th grade; Patricia Ouyang, 10th grade; Kalyani Ramadurgam, 10th grade; Mihika Nadig, 10th grade.

Julian Charter School: Captain – Delaney Richards, 10th grade; Peyton Katz, 10th grade; Sable Hunt, 10th grade; Matthew Loper, 12th grade; Eric Collins, 10th grade.

A few times every week over the past year, a handful of students at Torrey Pines High School have huddled over a lab table in science teacher Brinn Belyea’s classroom to answer what might be tough questions for some.

For example: “How many molecules of hydrogen chloride are in one molecule of HCI, the short name for hydrochloric acid?” The answer is no trouble for Torrey Pines 10th grader Alex Krotz: 6.022 x 10 to the 23rd power.

Tenth-grader Kalyani Ramadurgam also blurts out a quick answer for the question of “What property of waves allows them to bend around the edge of an obstacle?” Simple, right? It’s diffraction.

Alex, Kalyani and three other teammates are one step closer to competing in the National Science Bowl in Washington, D.C., the biggest quiz contest in the nation for aspiring scientists and tech whizzes.

Students from Torrey Pines High School in the Del Mar area and the Julian Charter School in Julian — the only schools representing San Diego County — will participate against 23 other California teams in a Jan. 24 competition in the Bay area city of Livermore. The winning team will receive an expense-paid trip to the national contest April 30 to May 4.

Torrey Pines went to the nationals last year, but did not win.

The Julian Charter kids have been practicing with YouTube science videos, and grilling each other for hours every week, according to Catherine Thompson, a science teacher with Julian Charter.

“I don’t think what we are doing will make them smarter. They already come smart,” said Thompson, who has designed something called “Genius Hour,” where her students prepare by answering sample questions in a format similar to the “Jeopardy” game show.

“This is our first year in the competition, so we are doing this for the experience,” said Delaney Richards, the 10th-grade captain of the Julian team. “Next year, when we return, we’ll kick some butt,” said Delaney, who wants to become a pediatrician or criminologist for the FBI one day.

The regional competition is one of 84 taking place around the country this month. Each team includes four students and one alternate.

The regional science bowl is organized by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Sandia National Laboratories, the government’s main research arm for nuclear weapons research, according to event coordinator Tim Sheppold, Sandia’s senior manager for security and reliability.

The 2015 competition marks the 25th science bowl, which the Energy Department launched in 1990 to interest youth in pursuing careers in science and math. At the finals, winning teams can score adventure trips to Alaska and national parks across the country to learn firsthand about science in the field. They also can win trophies, medals and supplies for their schools’ science departments.

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