Archive for December, 2006


The Union of Concerned Scientists uses a bit of humor to attack the growing problem of government attacks on scientific integrity. They’ve assembled a list of outrages – in case you’ve lost track of some of them – and instead of listing them all in an endlessly scrolling page they’re mapped out on a periodic table of sorts.

Hover over a symbol for the headline; click for the full story. And since they’re scientists, you can rest assured that the writeups are aggressively footnoted.

Delivering another refreshing blast of humor at the problem, the Union sponsored a cartoon contest poking fun at the sorry state of government-science interactions. You can buy a calendar of the top 12 funniest cartoons here. My favorite punchline: “And if you run the film backwards you can see it contains a hidden message: the glaciers are actually getting larger.”

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I eased into the annual American Geophysical Union meeting today at a poster session devoted to the dazzling secrets you can learn from isotopes. (Which was pretty much where I left off last year.) Right off the bat, I fell in with the drug crowd from Utah.

Picture the scene of a pot bust: a garage filled with product and a couple of flannel-shirted (and severely bummed) perps making up stories about where it came from. A new analysis may one day bypass that tedious step and let police ask the marijuana directly.

Jason West, from the University of Utah, is tracing seized marijuana back to where it grew by studying the isotopic signature recorded inside the plant’s tissues. His work so far is good enough to tell whether a stash came from Humboldt County or was ferried in from Mexico. But he’s aiming for a county-by-county level, or better.

The analysis works because hydrogen and its heavier brother, deuterium, occur in differing amounts in rainwater across the country. Plants suck up this water and use it to make molecules like sugars and proteins (not to mention tetrahydrocannabinol), preserving the ratio of deuterium to hydrogen in the process. By measuring that ratio in seized pot (a very small sample that has been very carefully loaned out by law enforcement, West stresses) and comparing the result to a map of rainfall values across California, you can narrow down where the pot grew.

Of course there’s some scatter in the data, in part because some cellular machinery uses deuterium preferentially over hydrogen. But even these complications can be unraveled. For instance, West found, plants making more THC had lower deuterium ratios. Once he measured that relationship, some fairly standard statistics let him factor out its effect to further narrow down the growing location. By employing another isotopic marker – a good choice would be strontium, West said – authorities could be even more precise. (Once I found out about West’s research, I learned that a lab in Alaska is doing similar work, trying to learn how much cannabis is homegrown vs. smuggled in from the south)

If all that sounds a little far-fetched, it’s been working for European wines for a decade or so. That industry has the advantage of being both legal and ferociously proud of its geographic origin, or terroir. Some European Union scientists make a career of detecting labels that fudge their place of origin. (Science News has a story on it.)

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Crazy die-hards encase themselves in neoprene and dodge ice floes in order to surf pathogenic, knee-high wind slop.

That’s the story, in a nutshell, and if it sounds vaguely familiar it’s probably because you watched Dana Brown and the Step into Liquid crew shake their heads at the Great Lakes surfers three whole years ago. So it’s a bit of a mystery why the New York Times would jump on the same story at this late date – unless the Swell of the Century was marching on Cleveland, its corduroy lines stacked to the horizon. Which, as the photo accompanying the article illustrates, it wasn’t.

Also surprisingly for those crack Times reporters, there was no mention of the seminal Great Lakes surf pic Unsalted. (See trailer for the rest of the nice backhand slash in the still above.) OK, so it’s more a record of a guy’s desire to film the epic waves of the Great Lakes than convincing evidence of the waves themselves. But nonetheless, like the Great Lakes lifestyle the film is a triumph of perseverance, and in its climax we do get to see a handful of SoCal pros shredding a perfect head-high freshwater A-frame in beautiful offshores. And the accompanying voiceovers are precious, since even on 80-degree days pro surfers tend to sound like they’ve been recently clocked by a chunk of ice. Imagine how they sound when they actually have.

But at the end of this article’s rehash of the Great Lakes surfing folly, reporter Christopher Maag actually latches onto some part of the truth:

“Occasionally there are days when the waves are good and the sunset falls into Lake Erie like a red fire and the Cleveland surfers bob silently in the water, alone in the city. “

It’s like that everywhere, even in the California these Midwesterners so desperately want to set themselves apart from. Rare moments when it’s finally worthwhile.

Riding waves is an exercise in heartbreak redeemed only occasionally by moments of purity. Surfing is sitting in a cold gray flatness and waiting as the sun drops out of the sky, and over the horizon it looks like God has been smoking rubies.

And then, every once in a while, a lithographed crescent wells up out of the deep and aims itself at you. Drops fly backward off the lip as it tumbles and you go, down, fast. There is ocean, a slab of it, at your cheek as you speed through a parabola and back to flat reality. The wave-riding itself is so short that, to a first approximation, it is timeless.

This post is dedicated to stalwart Scribble reader and veteran of both North Shores (Hawai’i and Cleveland) Charles Eldermire.

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How the world got wet

deep impact hits tempel 1

Those big oceans out there. Where did they come from?

This is a question that had never crossed my mind before. I mean much of the time I take the water that comes out of my tap for granted. I had certainly never wondered any farther up the supply chain than a groundwater aquifer. But recently I ran into a comet scientist and Trekkie named Karen Meech who set me straight on a few misconceptions.

It’s actually a bit of a puzzle, Meech said, because during the time that the Earth was forming, roughly 5 billion years ago, it was too hot for water to exist as a liquid. And as a gas it was unlikely to respond to Earth’s gravitational tug. Cosmologists have actually calculated the solar system’s “snow line” during its early life – apparently you had to head out to the asteroid belt before you could find any water.

So how did Earth end up with vastly more water than any other planet in the solar system? (Witness Mars’s feeble attempts to keep up.) Meech thinks most of it arrived when either asteroids or comets slammed into the planet early in its life. She and others in her field have even measured hydrogen isotope ratios in comets to see whether they match ocean water. The trouble with that approach is it’s hard to build your sample size. That’s one reason NASA sent up Deep Impact to pitch a fastball at comet Tempel 1, to read the spectral signature of the comet’s ice (watch a cartoon of it here).

Sci-fi novels aside, Meech says, water is probably a prerequisite for life – or advanced life, at least – on other planets. Liquids are great places for life, much better than solids at transporting nutrients and food yet without the unfortunate tendency to waft away that gases have. And water, thanks to those dear old hydrogen bonds, has a far greater temperature range at which it is liquid than other naturally occurring compounds.

This leads Meech to think that as long as we’re looking for life in other solar systems, we might want to look for ones with a belt of asteroids and comets, to boost the chances that that world is wet like ours. Of course, that assumes our water did come from comets or icy asteroids, and the jury is still out on that. It reconvenes at the Bioastronomy 2007 conference in July, in Puerto Rico. Mark your calendars.

(Thanks to NASA for an actual, real-life picture of Deep Impact smacking into Tempel 1. The yellow arrow is to aid the lay person in deducing the location of the strike.)

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