Archive for February, 2007

News roundup, starting with sort of a “Where are they now?” for past Scribble posts:

The Alfred Wegener Institute’s ship Polarstern is back in port after riding along to the scene of the collapse (of the Larsen B ice shelf). Scattered along a seafloor uncovered for the first time in perhaps 12 millennia, the researchers found lots of new, if smallish, species, including an unassuming invertebrate with a towering name: Shackletonia (pictured).

Those Japanese scientists who found (Captain) Nemo (i.e., videotaped a live giant squid for the first time) have already been upstaged. After “giant,” the next squid size up is the improbably named and even rarer “colossal” squid. A team fishing Antarctica for Patagonian toothfish pulled up a colossal squid weighing half a ton. News reports delicately avoided mentioning that Patagonian toothfish is the same thing as the overfished and bottom-trawled Chilean seabass, so popular at upscale though clueless restaurants.

The Society for Conservation Biology keeps an eye out for cool science headlines on their new blog Journal Watch. Among recent offerings, eradicating rats from Ohinau, off New Zealand, let geckos bounce back much faster than researchers expected. Another reason to ask for your island without so much rat in it.

The folks at RealClimate found this funny site: cheatneutral. Their premise: If you just can’t stay faithful, now you can pay someone to be faithful for you while you keep on producing infidelity at an industrial clip. They’re hoping putting the problem this way will change your attitude about buying and selling carbon offsets.

My sister, Sophie, recently went to see an amusing display of dodo art by Harri Kallio. Slate, always one step behind the avant garde (here represented by my sister), has now written about the work and posted a slideshow. Check it out. Dodos may be dead, but they’re adorable in a hopeless sort of way.

The practice of DNA barcoding – or sequencing anything with a mitochondrion – is turning up new species faster than you can say “phylogenetic species concept.” Recent results suggest 15 new species of birds are hiding in plain sight – there may be more species of commonplaces like ravens and chickadees than we ever suspected. This story has been covered in several venues, but Scientific American gets a mention here for the sheer hopelessness and complacency of their coverage. They misspell the name of the gene under study (that’s “oxidase” with an “i”, folks) and then announce that “Some fish differ by just one arrangement of the various amino acids in the DNA….” That’s a train-wreck of an error, as most high-school science-fair participants could tell you. DNA uses bases to code messenger RNA to tell ribosomes to assemble amino acids into proteins. For a magazine that charges you six bucks a copy to read stories written to be as stuffy as possible, that’s inexcusable.

Icing on the cake? The article never actually tells us what the 15 new species are. C’mon folks, there’s a public out there that we’re supposed to be informing. Grrr.

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North Korea’s 1-kiloton nuclear test last October showed up in the U.S. on readings from an exquisitely sensitive seismometer array. Seismologists Charles Ammon and Thorne Lay reported the finding last month in Eos: “Nuclear Test Illuminates USArray Data Quality”(PDF here).

Modern readers are quickly jaded: We all know nuclear weapons are powerful and seismographs are sensitive. So let’s add a little scale: First, the bomb North Korea tested was small but still showed up as a magnitude 4.2 jolt on nearby seismometers (pretty scary when you think about Cold War-era payloads in the megatons).

By the time the Pyongyang-induced tremors crossed the Pacific and reached the instruments in the U.S. array, Ammon and Lay write, the size of those vibrations would be about 2 nanometers, or around a thousandth the size of a speck of phytoplankton. It took some sophisticated data processing to sort the signal from the noise, but the signal was there. The rest of the article is a rather well-deserved pat on the back for the array’s sensitivity.

Last December, I marveled at the ability of a seismometer sitting on an Antarctic iceberg to pick up the roll and sway of swells arriving from Alaska. At the time, another seismologist remarked that his instruments, buried in rock at the South Pole, can hear those same waves crashing against the shore. Here is evidence of the Earth itself ringing from half a world away like a locomotive ringing down the railroad tracks.

In a marvelous throwaway remark, the authors noted that some of their seismometers missed the North Korea tremors because they were too close to the “noisy Pacific coast.” I like to think that the noise they’re referring to wasn’t just the creaky San Andreas fault, but the sound of Pacific surf battering the mudstone reefs of Santa Cruz and shivering on eastward through the inland rock.

So what is this USArray? It’s a monumental effort to put seismometers in the ground every 70 km across the entire United States (check out the Earthscope page). The seismometers are installed in broad swaths of about 400 at a time, starting in the West and gradually relocating eastward every 18-24 months. They report their data to the Web, and the latest reports are typically less than an hour old.

But in case you’re wondering, the idea here is not to help us detect bad guys blowing things up half a world away – or even, really, to detect big earthquakes of any kind. This large-scale installation lets people like Ammon and Lay turn the question around, and use earthquakes to learn about Earth. Their continent-sized net of seismometers catches the tremors from earthquakes large and small. Differences in the shape and timing of the same waves hitting different parts of this net let them piece together an image of Earth’s interior. It’s sort of like a great big planetary MRI. Cool.

(image: Earthscope)

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parus.jpg Strong onshores are whipping the North Sea into an unrideable mess. Great tits are flitting through the branches outside (note to non-birding readers: this is not naughty in the slightest: see picture).

Scribble Headquarters Europe has just opened in Bremen, Germany.  This is as of 24 hours ago, when Scribble Headquarters U.S.A. dragged his sorry sleep-deprived butt off a 737 to begin a 3-week stay in the Old World.

So far, the highlights have been modest, but Herr Gekritzeler has high hopes nevertheless. At the very least, it should be easier reporting breaking ocean news from nine hours in the future.

I did enjoy being able to take a tram from the airport straight to an eighth-century cathedral. (So tell me again – why can’t we do public transportation in the U.S.?) Some of the cars here are the size of an NBA center’s high-tops. And yesterday, someone actually said “Achtung!” to me. I braced for the worst, but it was only a piping-hot plate of ham and sauerkraut.

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My Uncle Owen was having tea with my mum when the topic turned to dinosaurs.

The next thing he said was this:



The triceratops
lived on such slops

As lush river-grasses and leafy tree tops

It lolloped along
like a rabbit that lops

It trod on small creatures that burst with loud pops

Then, all of a sudden,
its history stops

Kind of sums up the whole of the Jurassic, huh? He says he learned it as a schoolboy nearly 60 years ago in Eastbourne, UK, but doesn’t remember who’s responsible for it. Here’s to science education that sticks.

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Call it self interest, but I was most interested at AAAS by science journalist/all-around original thinker Margaret Wertheim, who spoke about where science journalism is going. She gave some impressive statistics about readership for the science magazines (around 20 million per month) and then pierced whatever chest-puffing may have ensued with some scale: the readership of women’s magazines is at least 70 million per month.

It gets worse: sci-mag readership is overwhelmingly male, middle-aged, and wealthy (81% male, 49 years old, making $115,000/year in Scientific American’s case for instance). Wertheim, an Australian, has managed to write a science column for the Australian versions of Vogue and Elle as well as produce a science TV show aimed at teenage girls. She thinks the rest of us can do that sort of thing, too – but she warns it’s the hardest work she can think of.

Wertheim has had a dream career, writing books with whimsical titles like Pythagoras’s Trousers, producing Australian TV, and starting the Institute for Figuring, which loves fractals, paper-folding, the kindergarten roots of modernism, and the aforementioned crocheted model of the Great Barrier Reef.

The reef is going on display next month at the Andy Warhol museum. It’s been discussed in the New York Times, New Scientist, and NPR. The technique is based on hyperbolic geometry, a 200-year-old branch of study that no one had been able to give three-dimensional reality to until 1997. A Cornell mathematician devised a simple, crochetable algorithm and then used a few ounces of yarn to disprove Euclid’s fifth postulate, which had been lying around for 2,000 years, unproved but grudgingly accepted, like a splinter. A few years later, Wertheim and her sister were sitting around crocheting in the living room of the Institute for Figuring when they noticed the resemblance to coral animals.

(Inkling take note: the IFF has the hands-down geekiest address ever: “Anchored in the conceptual landscape, the Institute for Figuring is located on the edge of the Mandelbrot Set.” Specifically it’s at 0.7473198, i0.1084649 . If you’re not familiar with the neighborhood, here’s a map, of a sort.)

So where does Wertheim think science journalism is going? Wertheim’s fantastically creative work takes abstract science to an unlikely audience, but it doesn’t seem to have a business model. Wertheim says the IFF is continually running on financial fumes. In that sense, it’s a shining example of what’s possible in the essentially volunteer outreach that the Internet has enabled. But it’s not really part of the future of science journalism.

When I asked Wertheim where quirky creativity like the IFF could find financial sustainability, she laughed. “That’s easy,” she said, “We just need the foundations to step in and fund us.” To me, that’s like saving biodiversity with captive breeding programs: Dedicating huge amounts of resources to prop up a few wonderful examples against ecological realities. Wertheim never mentioned the word “profit,” and she left me as confused as ever about how science news is going to survive in the new economic jungle.

(image: Institute for Figuring)

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I’ve been living it up at the annual AAAS meeting this weekend. In the meantime, the scribbling masses have had to content themselves with cut-rate science blogs by the likes of Carl Zimmer and that Pharyngula guy.

Well, I’m still recovering from endless shrieking rides through the BART tunnels at inconvenient hours (BART seems to stop running well before the average science writer gets drunk enough to become truly rowdy). But to stave off your hunger, here are the brief highlights.

10. A crocheted replica of the Great Barrier Reef. (More on this tomorrow, if you’re lucky.)

9. An entire session on breakthroughs in prime numbers.

8. Five alligator snapping turtles, each the size of a manhole cover, mauling each other in slow motion.

7. Sure, we can store a gigaton of carbon in the deep ocean, and it’ll only lower the pH by about 0.4. One catch: Some fish will probably no longer be able to breathe.

6. The Annals of Improbable Research gave eight researchers exactly five minutes each to discuss their work before a dominatrix in a strapless velvet gown cut them off.***

5. Cameron Walker. The first stranger I have met who had already heard of this blog. This would be #1 on the list if I weren’t concerned about sounding giddy.

4. A riveting ivory-billed woodpecker conspiracy theory leaked to me by a reporter from a major science news outlet. I would report it here but either you or me needs to be drinking tequila for it to sound plausible.

3. Barramundi. The fish of the future.

2. Steven Chu says we can solve the world’s energy problems with solar cells and termite guts. He sounds pretty convincing.

1. Coffee in the press room served in shiny cups made of a durable inorganic substance. An ingenious spray-down method (performed behind the scenes by uniformed workers) returned the cups to a clean state and allowed essentially perpetual reuse throughout the conference. A loop of the same material thoughtfully provided on one side enabled the drinker to slip his/her finger through and grasp the hot mug without discomfort, eliminating the need for a cardboard baffle.

***(Mini highlights of A.I.R. session: A report on the limits of what the postal service will deliver without packaging [dead fish, human molar = OK]; a 3-min talk consisting entirely of the word “chicken” plus graphs and flow charts; a NASA engineer’s analysis of UFO exhaust suggests they use low-octane fuel and are probably visiting us for our gasoline.)

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Scribbler cracks up

10quackery.jpgThere’s some sillier-than-usual Scribbling over here.

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Calling All Geeklings


They’re hipster geeks in labcoats, but they’ve got fab shoes. And they want you to join their army.

Cruise over to Inkling Magazine for their She’s Such A Geek Photo Contest. They want cool photos of geeky women, or alternatively geeky photos of cool women, or let’s face it, both at the same time. The most awesomely slideruleacious photo received by Feb. 28 wins a massive wall poster of Victorian proto-geek Lady Byron. (see site for details)

So dig into your Flickr archives, raid your Picasa files, rummage through your attic or just point your digital camera at a mirror (extra points if it uses adaptive optics). All disciplines, subdisciplines, lab props, and field settings accepted. They’re posting entries as they receive them.

Any geeky and/or cool women who may have unwisely stood in front of the Scribbler’s camera are hereby on notice.

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Scribble Posts in Google Maps


In case you hadn’t noticed the attractive boldface box over here on the right, there’s a new feature here at Surf.Bird.Scribble. In an endless quest to make it easier for you to read news while avoiding work, I’ve linked all previous Scribblings to their geographic locations in Google Earth.

You can quickly view the result in Google Maps – especially useful if you have a slow connection or just can’t be bothered with Google Earth. Click on each pushpin to get the name and date of the post and a link to the page. You can also peruse the folder list that appears on the left. Click on something you think sounds interesting, and it pops up on the map of the world.

If you want to fly around like Superman and tilt or spin the world (and its Scribble posts) like a basketball on the end of your finger, right-click here, save the file to your desktop, then open it in Google Earth. Easy as pie.

It’s a pretty neat way to find posts from interesting parts of the world, no matter when they were originally Scribbled. You can also write me scathing comments (remember: button is now at top of post, under headline) demanding to know why I have neglected your favorite sea-cliff, glacier or submarine canyon. If you just want to say that the baby turtles are cute, that’s okay, too.

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We live in an age where nobody has time to read and few people even have the time to look at pictures. That’s why we live in a world of icons. I like the witty ones.

Those dreadfully clever people at Science Creative Quarterly pulled together a big group of them, then turned them into merit badges for their new society of scientist/communicators. This left-hand column shows three of my favorite badges, ones I hope to earn.

The group’s called the O.O.T.S.S.O.E.R.A.A.A.P., and if you want to know what that stands for you’re just going to have to Look It Up!, which coincidentally is the slogan of the devastatingly clever blog Librarian Avengers.

I mention them because the chief Avenger has compiled a set of icons to warn prospective moviegoers about abuses that occur onscreen. That’s the second (greener) column on the right, above.

In case you haven’t got their meanings completely worked out yet, here they are:

The”destroyer of quackery” badge

The “I may look like a scientist but I’m actually also a ninja” badge

The “I’m a freaking rock star who sings about science” badge

Rated B for British Accent Faked by American

Rated E for Escape-in-front-of-a-fireball

Rated K for Keyboard hacks Pentagon in two clicks

Rated R for Remake of a Better Film

and my favorite

Rated S for Scientific Content ≠ Reality

Now all we need is a set of Scribble icons to let you know whether new posts are worth reading or not… stay tuned.

In the meantime, please be advised that the comments button is now at the top of each post, just under the headline. I have received exactly ZERO comments since changing the page format. The lowly Scribbler has been trying to explain to Scribble High Command that the drop-off has nothing to do with Scribble Quality, but they’re having none of it.

So come on, folks, throw me a fricken bone here. (if only to show you know where that last sentence came from)

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