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The Canadian War on Science: Environmental rules should be better, not easier [Confessions of a Science Librarian]

Fri, 04/27/2012 - 3:42pm

David Suzuki is a icon for the Canadian environmental movement. He's like our Al Gore and Rachel Carson all rolled up into one. I read and reviewed his memoirs a while back and they are terrific.

When he talks, sensible people listen.

This blog post by Suzuki and Ian Hanington hit my in box this morning: Environmental rules should be better, not easier
Few people would argue against making environmental review processes and regulations more efficient -- as long as they're effective. But changes announced in the recent federal budget don't do that. Instead, they make it easier for the federal government and industry to push through projects that could harm the environment and the economy, and limit the ability of ordinary Canadian citizens to have a say in matters of national importance.


Eliminating environmental reviews for some projects altogether, shifting responsibility to the provinces, and severely cutting back on staff and agencies that provide management and information are not ways to make processes more efficient; they're ways to accelerate approval of major projects, making the short-term interests of industry a higher priority than protecting the air, land, and water we all need to stay healthy.


We all want a free and democratic country with a healthy environment and strong economy. The best way to guarantee that is to encourage scientific research and knowledge, open discourse, and respect for a range of viewpoints. There are ways we can improve efficiency of decision-making, such as clearer environmental rules. Sometimes -- but not always -- it may take longer to reach a decision, but at least we'd be confident it is made in the best interests of all Canadians.

It's a terrific and compelling call to do environmental reviews the right way -- the way that maximizes human values and not just economic ones. And sadly, that doesn't seem to be the path that the current Canadian government is following.

For those that are interested, I will keep on doing these "Canadian War on Science" posts intermittently. I have ones coming up highlight issues with the fisheries and with arctic research. And more, actually. Sadly this particular government is a bonanza for this sort of thing.

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Study points to role for both organic and conventional agriculture in sustainable food production [Tomorrow's Table]

Thu, 04/26/2012 - 5:05pm

A paper in this week's issue of Nature and a commentary on Revkin's DotEarth blog reinforces the argument that a hybrid path in agriculture -- incorporating both conventional and organic production practices -- gives the best chance of feeding some 9 billion people by midcentury in an ecologically-based manner.

The thoughtful and comprehensive study compares yields in organic and conventional systems and addresses the criticisms of an earlier study by Badgley et al (for problems with the earlier study, see the supplementary discussion in Seufert et al).

The organic agriculture movement has been important because it has brought consumer attention to the overuse of some pesticides and fertilizers. It has also raised awareness of the need to foster soil fertility. But organic farming practices are just part of a future sustainable agriculture. Just like conventional farmers, organic farmers face pests that are difficult to control or environmental stresses that can affect yield. For example, strawberries are highly susceptible to soil born diseases. Currently both conventional and organic growers purchase clonally propagated seedlings that were fumigated with methyl bromide, an insecticide known to increase the risk of prostrate cancer. Unlike conventional growers, organic growers do not use methyl bromide in the field. To reduce infection, they rotate strawberries with another crop, such as broccoli (a less valuable crop). The trade off to the grower is that yields of organic strawberries are lower. And the consumer pays higher prices for organic strawberries. Clearly, we need better methods to control strawberry diseases that will benefit both conventional and organic production.

Although the Seufert et al study shows that yields on organic farms are generally lower than most conventional farms (with important exceptions that the authors discuss), this yield differential will change with time. On the one hand, as Seufert et al point out, improvements in management techniques that address factors limiting yields in organic systems will enhance the yield of organic systems. On the other hand, because organic farmers are prohibited from using genetically engineered crops, they will not be able to reap the benefits of new crop varieties that assimilate nitrogen more efficiently, that are resistant to disease or tolerant of drought. For example, genetically engineered papaya in Hawaii yields 20x more than organic papaya (note, it appears that papaya was not included in the Suefert et al study). This is because there is no organic method to control a devastating viral disease that has infected papaya. At the other extreme, Suefert et al show that yields of other organic fruit and oilseed crops show very little yield differences with conventional crops. Clearly it is impossible to say which farming system is "better". Each crop and faming system must be evaluated on a case by case basis.

The study points to the need to drop the ideologically charged "organic vs. conventional" debate and instead focus on what matters: the need to reduce the use of the most toxic insecticides, produce food more efficiently using less land and water and to enhance food security in the poorest regions of the world.

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Criminal Charges Filed in BP Oil Spill (UPDATED) [Greg Laden's Blog]

Tue, 04/24/2012 - 1:43pm

Yes, it was a crime; it was a crime against nature and against the law of the land, and now the first criminal charges are being filed, according to an exclusive report at NPR.

"The first criminal charges in connection with the BP oil spill have been filed against a former BP engineer named Kurt Mix," NPR's Carrie Johnson reports exclusively.

Carrie just told our Newscast unit that Mix has been charged with obstruction of justice for allegedly deleting text messages after the spill. The texts were related to the amount of oil gushing into the Gulf. Mix will make his first appearence in court today.

Go read about it here.

Update from the Washington Post:

Justice Dept. makes 1st arrest in BP oil spill; ex-engineer accused of obstruction of justice

... Kurt Mix, of Katy, Texas, was arrested on two counts of obstruction of justice.

The Justice Department says the 50-year-old Mix is accused of deleting a string of 200 text messages with a BP supervisor in October 2010 that involved internal BP information about how efforts to cap the well were failing.

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Baboons, breast cancer and blogs. [Tomorrow's Table]

Sun, 04/22/2012 - 10:30pm

I was so pleased to have a chance to take part in the Women in Science Symposium at Cornell April 2-3.

Thanks to the Cornell faculty and students that put together this wonderful event. For those that could not attend, read the graduate student interviews with the speakers here.

Dr. Mary Power is director of the Angelo Coast Reserve, leader in scientific societies, mentor to many successful students, and as an influential figure in several environmental policy debates.

Dr. Sharon Long is member of National Academy of Sciences and served as science advisor to President Obama during his campaign.

Dr. Nicole Dubilier currently leads the Symbiosis Group at the Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology in Bremen, Germany, where she mentors nearly a dozen PhD students and juggles several projects, yet still manages to balance all this with a family at home.

Dr. Mary Berenbaum's lab studies the co-evolution of insects and their host plants. Her Berenbaum's awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship; US National Academy of Sciences membership; and for her ongoing commitment to science communication, the AAAS Public Understanding of Science and Technology Award.

Princeton's Jeanne Altmann's research on baboons represents a stellar contribution to the field of behavioral ecology.

Mary-Claire King's work unraveled the genetic basis of breast cancer and Nobel Laureate Linda Buck research revealed how mammals distinguish the scent of lemon from that of... scat

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Happy Earthday, and Thank You BP [Greg Laden's Blog]

Sun, 04/22/2012 - 3:38pm

A special thanks to BP on this fine Earth Day. Modifications made to the ecosystem of the Gulf of Mexico have had several important improvements. Much of the pesky coral living at the bottom of the gulf seems to have been doused with deadly doses of BP oil, some species have been provided with hip new color schemes (mainly black and blackish), some shrimp are now eyeless, which will surely make them easier to catch and, according to BP, does not affect their edibility, the killifish are being killed, which is presumably what they want (given their name and all) and those snippy crabs that we all love to make into crabcakes and such are now frequently claw-less, and thus less likely to pinch us!

Here's a short video clip outlining the many improvements to the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem that BP has given us:

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Earth the Owner's Manual [Greg Laden's Blog]

Sat, 04/21/2012 - 12:03pm

I have it on good authority that this is going to be great.

Jeff Masters has a writeup.

Penn State climate scientist Dr. Richard Alley hosts parts II and III of Earth: the Operator's Manual on PBS beginning at 7pm Sunday, April 22--Earth Day. Part I of this excellent series aired in April 2011. The series gives an overview of climate change, but primarily focuses on what we can do to help slow down climate change though smart energy choices....

I've seen some bits and pieces and it looks good.

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Oil for Food - Microbe Style [We Beasties]

Fri, 04/20/2012 - 4:30pm

Yesterday on Marketplace, there was a great piece by Alex Chadwick on the fate of all the oil released during the BP oil spill two years ago.

Oil is a product of organic matter that was deposited many, many years ago. It's gone through many, many changes deep in earth under high pressure, high temperature -- but fundamentally it's an organic material.

This is hard to grasp. Oil is food, an organic buffet for microbes. So, two years ago, when the BP oil plumed in the water, very soon the bacteria plumed, too. Different kinds in different parts of the ecosystem -- deep water, shallow, shoreline. But they all eat oil, and a lot of it, and quickly.

Back in November 2010, Heather wrote about some of these bug and how they were prospering, but one thing always bugged me about that. Where did these bugs come from? The hydrocarbons in oil are nothing like those produced in the biosphere, so how did those bacteria just happen to have the right enzymes to break them down?

My ignorance of deep sea ecosystems is on full display here - it turns out that nearly million barrels of oil naturally seeps out of the sea floor every year. No microbe population worth its salt would let that energy bonanza go to waste, and it seems that deep sea microbes have been evolving with oil in there environment for a long time. After the BP spill, these populations bloomed, and are still busily breaking down all that oil for food - perhaps as much as 40% by the time it's all said and done.

The whole piece is well produced, I'm really looking forward to more of Alex Chadwick's new energy reporting project, "Burn."

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Good Bye Glaciers [Greg Laden's Blog]

Thu, 04/19/2012 - 7:29pm

Most of the world's mountain glaciers are either totally melted or reduced significantly in size. For every one of these glaciers, there's somebody who will tell you that that particular glacier has disappeared or is disappearing for some reason that has nothing to do with anthropogenic global warming. Once, some guy tried to convince me that one of the world's major tropical glaciers was melting away as a result of global cooling.

It used to be that I thought of people like that as poorly informed. Then, I changed my mind when I realized that you can't be THAT poorly informed, and that you must be either some sort of idiot or a person with very questionable motivations and a strong dishonest streak to support such ideas. But those times have gone by as well. Even people who for a log time denied the reality of anthropogenic global warming, and in particular the significance of the startling fact that the world's mountain glaciers are all either reduced or gone (with one single exception that I know of), have stopped saying that. The only people left are the crazy ones. You have to be absolutely nuts to think that global warming is not real, human caused, and responsible for the melting of all that ice.

I'm reminded of all this by the following photograph that NASA just sent me:

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Weird Winter, Mad March [A Few Things Ill Considered]

Wed, 04/18/2012 - 11:34am

I have not watched these yet myself, but will do as soon as I download and convert them for my iPhone, but I have no doubt they are up to Peter Sinclair's usual high standards.

Embedded below are part's 1 and 2 of Weird Winter - Mad March. Enjoy, discuss!

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Weekend Diversion: Where Bigfoot Dwells [Starts With A Bang]

Sun, 04/15/2012 - 12:45pm

"You never need think you can turn over any old falsehoods without a terrible squirming of the horrid little population that dwells under it." -Oliver Wendell Holmes As an astrophysicist, I get sent all sorts of (unsolicited) novel ideas and theories claiming to overturn everything from special relativity to quantum theory to the Big Bang. But the biologists get one very special type that I don't, that I was fortunate enough to have shared with me. This is not a case of physicists vs. biologists; on the contrary -- as the Be Good Tanyas might tell you -- this is what it sounds like

When Doves Cry.

Because biologists get emails like this: I have been researching bigfoot in Washington and have 3 hours of video and castings of 2 different foot prints in the snow. I now have a chunk of hair I found on a broken tree branch. I need to find out what kind of animal it came from. It is about 3 inches long and like dry fishing line and there is some hair that is like a under coat or winter coat. You my think I'm crazy but that's ok because I know what I have and some day the world will know too. Now, the only evidence for bigfoot I've ever seen comes courtesy of Graham Roumieu:


But someday, the world will know too, and perhaps that day is today. Because today, I present to you the 2009 paper, Predicting the distribution of Sasquatch in western North America, from the Journal of Biogeography.


The science of ecological niche modelling basically allows you to take the combined data of observed sightings/collected evidence of the presence of an animal species along with environmental data such as rainfall, temperature, foliage density, etc., and create a computer model of where that species lives and in what density.

So why not apply that to bigfoot/sasquatch in the pacific northwest?


By taking reported bigfoot encounters (white circles) and footprints (denoted with big feet) and applying, among other things, topographic data (dark shading is higher elevation, light shading is low), Lozier, Aniello and Hickerson created an ecological niche model for bigfoot. Here are the present-day results.


Of course, one could look at the ecological niche models of other large creatures whose existence isn't disputed. Based on the same type of data -- encounters with humans as well as footprint evidence -- spread across Oregon, Washington and California, they also constructed an ecological niche model for bears.


Well, that's (un)surprisingly similar, wouldn't you say? In fact, the authors have done the correlative analysis, and here are the findings.


What does this mean? How good is this overlap? The observed value of I = 0.849 indeed indicates a high degree of overlap, and falls well within the null distribution generated from maxent runs for 100 randomizations of Bigfoot and black bear coordinates (Fig. 3; P < observed = 0.32). Thus, the two 'species' do not demonstrate significant niche differentiation with respect to the selected bioclimatic variables. Although it is possible that Sasquatch and U. americanus share such remarkably similar bioclimatic requirements, we nonetheless suspect that many Bigfoot sightings are, in fact, of black bears. Or, as even Bigfoot believers will tell you, you have to know the difference between a bear and Bigfoot so that you don't mistake one for the other.


Here's another clue: there's absolutely no evidence that Bigfoot knows how to dance. Bears, on the other hand...

Have a great rest-of-your-weekend!

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Americans on Energy: New UT Study [Greg Laden's Blog]

Wed, 04/11/2012 - 8:50am

Another poll shows increasing and strong interest among Americans in developing Green Technology and related technologies, as well as reduced interest in anti-environmental extremism and petrolatum-related efforts.

Previously, we discussed the new poll by the Science Debate people, and now we have new information from the UT Energy Poll.

The results are mixed, but interesting. In order of decreasing preference expressed by a voter to support a candidate for president based on their position, voters like expanded natural gas development1, incentives for renewable tech companies, increased energy research, requiring utilities to offer "renewable." Those are all in the above 50% range.

Approval of a president who, in turn, would approve of the Keystone XL Pipeline sits at the 50% mark. Expanded Gulf drilling, oil exploration in the Arctic are below 50%. Loan guarantees for nuclear companies is at a dismal 28% and, happily, support for a theoretical presidential candidate who proposed to eliminate the EPA (remember Michele Bachmann?) is at 20% according to the poll.

The UT study is reported by Sheril Kirschenbaum, here.

Interestingly, 65% of poll respondents say global climate change is occurring and 22% that it is not. I believe that over the medium or short term, that is an increase in percentage of people who get that right, but it is still dismal.

1I think many people believe "Natural Gas" to be good, more or less uncritically. Probably has something to do with this.

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Waste not, want not? Poultry "feather meal" as another source of antibiotics in feed [Aetiology]

Thu, 04/05/2012 - 1:15pm

The ecology of antibiotic resistance on farms is complicated. Animals receive antibiotic doses in their food and water, for reasons of growth promotion, disease prophylaxis, and treatment. Other chemicals in the environment, such as cleaning products or antimicrobial metals in the feed, may also act as drivers of antibiotic resistance. Antibiotic-resistant organisms may also be present in the environment already, from the air, soil, or manure pits within or near the barns. Ecologically, it's a mess and makes it more difficult to attribute the evolution and spread of resistance to one particular variable.

A new paper emphasizes just what a mess it really is, and what animals are exposed to in addition to "just" antibiotics. Led by Keeve Nachman at the Johns Hopkins University Center for a Livable Future, his team took a different approach to examining farm exposures, by looking at "feather meal." What is feather meal, you may ask? I did when I met with Keeve last month at Hopkins as we discussed his research. Well, feathers are one obvious byproduct of chicken slaughtering, and waste not, want not, right? So feathers are processed into meal, which can then be used in a number of ways--among them fertilizer, and as an additive to feed for chickens, pigs, fish, and cattle.

We already knew that chickens receive antibiotics in their food and water supplies, just as other farm animals do. It was also known that some antibiotic residues persisted on chicken feathers--another potential driver of resistance in farm animals. However, Nachman and colleagues wanted to assess what other chemicals may be present in this feed meal besides antibiotics, and also whether those antibiotic residues persisted in the feather meal after processing/treatment of the feathers. As lead author David Love notes:

Why study feather meal? We know that antibiotics are fed to poultry to stimulate growth and to make up for crowded living conditions in poultry houses, but the public does not know what types of drugs are used and in what amounts. It turns out that many of these drugs accumulate in poultry feathers, so by testing feathers we have a non-invasive way of learning about what drugs are actually fed to poultry.

To do this, they examined 12 feather meal samples from the U.S. (n=10) and China (n=2). All 12 samples contained at least one antibiotic residue, and some contained residues of 10 different drugs (both of those were from China). While many of the antibiotics were ones used in poultry farming (or their metabolites), they also found drugs they did not expect. Most significantly, this included residues of fluoroquinolones, which they found in 6 of 10 U.S. feather meal samples. Why is this important? Fluoroquinolone use was banned in U.S. poultry production as of 2005 because of the risk to human health--so where are these residues coming from? The authors make a few suggestions for this:

These findings may suggest that the ban is not being adequately enforced or that other pathways, for example, through use of commodity feed products from livestock industries not covered by the ban, may inadvertently contaminate poultry feed with fluoroquinolones. Furthermore, if feather meal with fluoroquinolone residues is fed back to poultry, this practice could create a cycle of re-exposure to the banned drugs. Unintended antimicrobial contamination of poultry feed may help explain why rates of fluoroquinolone-resistant Campylobacter isolates continue to persist in poultry and commercial poultry meat products half a decade after the ban.

Interestingly, the authors tested whether antibiotic residues at the level they found could influence bacterial growth, and found that they did inhibit growth of wild-type E. coli, but allowed a resistant strain to flourish.

Besides antibiotic residues, a number of other chemicals were also detected, including many I'd never thought to associate with farming. In the U.S. samples, they found caffeine--apparently chickens may be fed coffee pulp and green tea powder, which may account for this finding; acetaminophen (Tylenol), which can be used to treat fevers in poultry just as it can for humans; diphenhydramine (the active ingredient in Benadryl), which apparently is used for anxiety issues in poultry; and norgestimate, a sex hormone. Any kind of health significance to these (either to people or to the animals who are ingesting these via feather meal) is uncertain. In an interview with Nick Kristof in the New York Times, Nachman noted:

"We haven't found anything that is an immediate health concern," Nachman added. "But it makes me question how comfortable we are feeding a number of these things to animals that we're eating. It bewilders me."

So what we're seeing here are the presence of antibiotics and other drugs in feather meal, which is spread around as a fertilizer or fed to many species of domestic animals as an additive. It's difficult to keep up with these additional feed additives--in addition to feather meal, many animals could also receive distiller's grains in their diet, ethanol by-products which are another potential source of antibiotic residues.

This, my friends, is a clusterfuck.

Though I've focused on the U.S. data here, the paper notes that the Chinese samples are relevant as well--while most feather meal used here is domestically produced, we do import some, and about a quarter of what we import is from China, where antibiotics that are restricted or banned in the U.S. may still be in use. Furthermore, farmers may not even know this is in the feed they're using, as many mixes are proprietary. (And if farmers don't know, you can imagine how difficult it is for a researcher to determine if this is playing a role in antibiotic resistance or other public health issues on these farms).

Works cited

Love, D., Halden, R., Davis, M., & Nachman, K. (2012). Feather Meal: A Previously Unrecognized Route for Reentry into the Food Supply of Multiple Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products (PPCPs) Environmental Science & Technology, 46 (7), 3795-3802 DOI: 10.1021/es203970e

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An Excellent Book on Energy: Before the Lights Go Out... [Greg Laden's Blog]

Mon, 04/02/2012 - 3:54pm

On Sunday, I interviewed Maggie Koerth-Baker, the author of Before the Lights Go Out: Conquering the Energy Crisis Before It Conquers Us. The interview was live on radio, but you can listen to it here as a podcast.

Maggie is the science editor at Boing Boing, a journalist, and has had an interest in energy and the related science and engineering for some time. Her book is an overview, historical account, and detailed description of the energy systems that we use in the United States, outlining the flow of watts, CO2 emissions, methods of making more watts, what we use it all for, and more. Maggie focuses on the electrical power grid, which is actually responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than internal combustion powered transport (cars, trucks, etc.), but she does touch on the latter. She focuses on the US but she draws from overseas examples in discussing what is normally done, what is not normally done, and what we might do in the future. She develops compelling and sometimes startling imagery and provides interesting and lively metaphors useful in describing and understanding sometimes very abstract problems related to making, delivering, and using energy.

Here's the bottom line. If you want to have an intelligent conversation about energy, especially related to current problems and needs in the US and especially related to the electrical grid, you have to either know all the stuff that is in Before the Lights Go Out, or read the book before you engage in that conversation, or, if you can't manage either of those, then maybe you should just shut up. Seriously.

I've been engaged in conversations about energy at a significantly heightened pace over the last several months, for various reasons, and I've found that the stuff that comes out of people's mouths (my own included) is very often either very out of date or was never very correct to begin with. Maggie's book is a very engaging way of fixing that. If you read the book, you will be caught up.

I caution those of you who might listen to the podcast that we only touched on part of what is covered in the book! You can't just listen to the interview and skip reading the source material! Having said that, I'm not going to go into great detail here either. Listen to the podcast, get the book, read it, and report back. You will probably have interesting questions and additions to add to the comment section.

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I Want To Live In A Bathysphere [Universe]

Sat, 03/31/2012 - 9:02pm


Is poetry a driving force of Oceanography?
Read Rimbaud!

- Phillipe Diolé

I've written many times, although not recently, about the ocean.

When I first began Universe in 2005, it was practically a ship's log: meandering pieces on narwhal tusks, the accidental poetics of my hero, Rachel Carson, and adolescent screeds on the perils of the Mariana trench. At some point in my career, I ported my energies outward to the cosmos, reasoning, as the ancient alchemists did, that "As Above, So Below."

The movement from the deep to the distant, from sea to space, seemed like a sensible evolution. I saw parallels then, as I do now. They are both cold, forbidding, strange, contain tremulous mysteries, and do not give their secrets readily. Tales of their early exploration contain feats of unspeakable audacity, as well as tragedy. Solitary heroes stand out: Yuri Gagarin in his Vostok spacecraft, Jacques Cousteau developing the Aqua-Lung in order to push deeper underwater, the elite few men and women who have dared venture far above, far below. Listen to a veteran diver discuss the sea and an astronaut space: you'll hear the same hushed tones, the same fearful, learned respect.

After all, what experience does this planet offer us more phenomenologically similar to spacewalking than floating in a deep ocean? Water is the best environment for spacewalk training on Earth; substituting neutral buoyancy for microgravity, NASA Astronauts train at the Neutral Buoyancy Lab in Houston, a giant swimming pool. I've always been delighted by images of this place; if you squint just right, and ignore the scuba divers, it almost looks like outer space is robin's egg blue and dotted with bubbles.


In spite of our egotism, the human organism is delicate. We're only built to tromp around the accommodating portions of the Earth. The moment we're submerged in the ocean, or we ascend too high a peak&#8212to say nothing of outer space&#8212we're out of our league. Yet, in our incorrigible hubris, we've long used technology to wander beyond our territory. Aristotle wrote of diving bells, and (apocryphally) even Alexander the Great explored the deep ocean&#8212in a submarine of white glass, where the fish gathered 'round to pay homage&#8212and returned to pronounce of his experience, "the world is damned and lost." Mercury spacecraft and the early Soviet Vostok capsules may as well have been diving bells; they were so small, it's said that they were worn, not ridden.


"The sea," Captain Nemo pronounces, in one of literature's more glamorous depictions of the deep, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, "does not belong to despots. Upon its surface men can still excercise unjust laws, fight, tear one another to pieces, and can be carried away with terrestrial horrors. But at thirty feet below its level, their reign ceases, their influence is quenched, and their power disappears. Ah! Sir, live&#8212live in the bosom of the waters! There only is independence! There I recognise no masters! There I am free!"

This sentiment, an inverted Overview Effect, sounds familiar. Astronauts consistently speak of the irrelevance of borders, even nations, on a planet viewed from space. It's probably the most consistent revelation of spaceflight, the majestic panorama of a whole planet, seen without its despots and ideologues. The Soviet cosmonaut Gherman Titov, only the second man in space and the first to be there for more than 24 hours, described the experience of seeing the Earth from space as "a thousand times more beautiful than anything I could have imagined." After orbiting the planet over a dozen times, Titov replied a call from mission control with the elated cry: "I am Eagle! I am Eagle!"

An Eagle, of course, has no masters.

Today, in cramped cockpits and bathyspheres, astronauts and their aquatic counterparts lie contorted in the same metal cabins, surrounded by death, peering from thick windows into empty, hostile landscapes. Cloaked in metal, they transport light where there has never been any&#8212to what James Cameron, after his much-ballyhooed recent dive to the Challenger Deep, called a "barren, desolate lunar plain," or (more viscerally) which William Beebe, passenger in the world's first bathysphere, described as "the black pit-mouth of hell itself."


This "black pit-mouth" is what interests me. Essentially every culture has a mythological history which includes primal undifferentiated formlessness. The abyss, as much topless as it is bottomless. And the abyss, figuratively speaking, is neither distinctly maritime nor interplanetary. Rather, it's a little of both: Tao, the primal ocean upon which Vishnu slumbered, amorphous being, chaos preceding time. Is this because the ancients knew on a symbolic level what our scientists empirically know now: that the abyss&#8212in both worldly forms&#8212is the seat of our lineage? We are, as Carl Sagan said, "made of starstuff." We're also risen from the sea. The salt in our veins is testament.

Beebe, one of the greatest American explorers, in his book Half-Mile Down, a record of his dive to 3,028 feet in 1934, wrote that it seems "a very wonderful thing, to walk about on land today, vitalized by a bit of the ancient seas swirling through our body. It is somehow of a piece with stars and time and space-something to be very quiet and thoughtful about, and proud of." Indeed, while beneath the waters lies a cruel landscape, and while the cosmos is vast and unforgiving, they are both our birthright. Our impulse to travel far below and above our limits is precisely that of children striving to return to the womb, only to discover that birth is as great a nothingness as death.

Between coral/Silent eel/Silver swordfish
I can't really feel or dream down here

Further Reading:

Half-Mile Down, by William Beebe
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, by Jules Verne
The Sea Around Us, by Rachel Carson

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On one hand, Paul Douglas. On the other, Heartland [Greg Laden's Blog]

Fri, 03/30/2012 - 9:18pm

I have two only vaguely related items for you, and the first is really two items.

Paul Douglas has written a piece on climate change that you should read. Douglas is the famous Twin Cities meteorologist who worked for several years at our own WCCO. He was a regional celebrity, much loved by all, and a lot of people stopped watching television when he left that station a couple of years back. The blog post is: A Message From A Republican Meteorologist On Climate Change.

Given how sensible and smart he is, one would have never thought Paul was a ... oh never mind, that, there is a second thing you should know: Paul Douglas will be one of our guests at two Climate Change panels we are doing this July at CONvergence, as part of the organized science and skepticism track. You'll be hearing a lot more about that later. Maggie Koerth-Baker, whom I shall be interviewing on the radio Sunday AM, will also be on one or both of those panels.

The other item that just came across my desk: General Motors Stops Funding The Heartland Institute. Why? The short answer is that the truth about the nature of the Heartland Institute was exposed by scientist Peter Gleick, and General Motors decided to do the right thing.

Thank you very much, that is all.

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Do Neonicotinoid Pesticides Contributed to the Complex Thing We Call Bee Colony Collapse? [Greg Laden's Blog]

Fri, 03/30/2012 - 7:24pm

ResearchBlogging.orgA commonly used insecticide, and possibly an increasingly widely used form of that pesticide, could be a causal factor in bee colony collapse. It is not 100% certain that this pesticide's effects can be counted as one of the causes this problem, but there is a very good chance that neonicotinoids can cause a drop in hive population, and thus, should be examined to see if there is a relationship in some cases. From the paper's abstract:

Nonlethal exposure of honey bees to thiamethoxam (neonicotinoid systemic pesticide) causes high mortality due to homing failure at levels that could put a colony at risk of collapse. Simulated exposure events on free-ranging foragers labeled with an RFID tag suggest that homing is impaired by thiamethoxam intoxication. These experiments offer new insights into the consequences of common neonicotinoid pesticides used worldwide. Read the rest of this post... | Read the comments on this post...

Get Ready for Global Water Dances [Greg Laden's Blog]

Wed, 03/28/2012 - 4:31pm

Coming to a place near you in June.


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More from Michael Mann [Class M]

Wed, 03/28/2012 - 12:07pm

Now on CNN:

Imagine you are sitting in your office simply doing your job and a nasty e-mail pops into your inbox accusing you of being a fraud. You go online and find that some bloggers have written virulent posts about you. That night, you're at home with your family watching the news and a talking head is lambasting you by name. Later, a powerful politician demands all your e-mails from your former employer.

It sounds surreal. But it all happened to ...

Michael Mann.

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Michael Mann on Climate Scientists and Smear Campaigns [Greg Laden's Blog]

Wed, 03/28/2012 - 11:53am

Climate scientist Michael Mann is no stranger to smear campaigns. Man has the distinction of having made important contributions to climate science, for which he shared the Nobel Peace Prize. He is famous to many of you for having come up with the "hockey stick" metaphor.

Michael Mann is a good scientist who has done honest, important, and high quality work, but there are those who don't want to hear about the results he and other climate scientists have come up with. So, they hate him. And by "hate" I don't mean that they sit there not liking him. I mean, they actively hate him. They wake up every morning and try to think of things to do to ruin his life, and they conspire with each other to carry out these nefarious acts, and in some cases, they are paid by special interests to do these things.

We all get this hate, to one level or another. I was amused the other day when one of the haters, someone who had made death threats against me, had apparently pressed the button on his Linked In account to "find people to link to" and thus accidentally sent me an invitation to "Link In." I get an email that says "I want to kill you" then I get an invitation to link up. Made me laugh.

But in reality this is no laughing matter. Even though we all take a certain amount of crap for either being a climate scientist or a person who teaches about climate change or a blogger or journalist who covers these issues honestly and critically, no one has taken the crap that Michael Mann has had to take. I don't know how he does it.

Anyway, Michael has written a commentary for CNN that covers not so much the attacks on him, but rather, the attacks on climate science more generally. He talks about the theft of emails and subsequent dissemination and misuse of their contents and related events:

In the most infamous episode, somebody stole thousands of e-mails and documents from leading climate researchers, including me. They cherry picked key phrases from the e-mails and published them out of context, like a black-and-white political attack ad with ominous music. Fossil fuel industry-funded groups gleefully spread the e-mails online and badgered the mainstream media into covering the "controversy" they had manufactured.

It was no accident that this happened on the eve of a major international climate change meeting. ... The dozen independent investigations that did follow -- all of which exonerated the scientists -- got much less media coverage than the original nonscandal.

Go read his essay. Also, please, please check out the comment section and say something not horrible there to help diffuse the crap that I'm sure is going to appear there over the next few days!

Michael Mann is the author of The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines.

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