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Creamer, Please. (from Paige Brown's blog)

Wed, 05/30/2012 - 2:29am

What is more entertaining that watching milk fall into coffee? The milk always forms such beautiful spiraling formations within the cup of coffee… and there are some real physics behind the mixing going on right there in your morning joe!I enjoyed my own view of coffee mixing this morning… through the slow motion eyes of my camera! Check it out. Differences in temperature and density may contribute to the way my organic creamer mixes into my glass of chilled expresso.Did you know that it is very difficult to mix fluids together in very small volumes, like at the nanoscale (10^-9 liter volumes)? This is because at very small scales, for example in micro- or nano-sized fluid channels built into microfluidic chips, fluids tend to demonstrate laminar as opposed to turbulent flows. This means that when two fluids enter a channel from two inlet channels, they tend to stay side-by-side as they flow into the merged channel, mixing mostly only by diffusion of molecules from one fluid stream into the other.laminar vs turbulent.jpgLaminar (left) vs. turbulent (right) flow. Microfluidic researchers have put much effort into designing structures that can help fluids mix together on the nanoscale, like serpentine channels, step-like grooves on channel bottoms, and votex-like structures. microfluidic mixing.jpgSchematic 3D diagrams of the three representative types of microfluidic mixers investigated in this study: Y channel mixer (A), 3D serpentine mixer (B), and vortex mixer ©. 2004 PNAS, the National Academy of Sciences.Fluids behave very differently indeed on the nanoscale! It would take you quite a while to mix milk into your coffee on the nanoscale!

Wind-aided birds on their way north (from Liz O'Connell's blog)

Tue, 05/29/2012 - 6:39pm

by Ned RozellMigration_GodwitsDepart.jpgA flock of bar tailed godwits departs Alaska in September from Nelson Lagoon on the Alaska Peninsula.Photo by Bob Gill After flying northward from Chile, a whimbrel landed in late March in an alfalfa field near Mexicali, Mexico. The handsome shorebird with a long curved beak left its wintering ground in South America one week earlier and flew more than 5,000 miles. Nonstop. In one of the great migrations happening all over the world right now, the bird is heading to northern Alaska. Once there, it should touch down on tundra along the Colville River, about 25 miles inland from the Beaufort Sea coast. Bob Gill knows the location of the bird because he got a text message of its whereabouts on the same day he gave a presentation in Fairbanks. The bird biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Science Center in Anchorage reported on how changing conditions in the weather factory known as the atmosphere might affect whimbrels, godwits, curlews and other birds that make amazing, wind-aided journeys twice each year. For years Gill has traveled in autumn to estuaries along the Alaska Peninsula. While there, he has squinted into the wind and spitting rain of magnificent storms. Early in his studies of bar tailed godwits, Gill would be surprised to crawl from his tent and find his birds had disappeared. Now he knows the birds use the big storms to slingshot themselves out of Alaska. From here, the birds fly to New Zealand. They spend a week in the air without stopping, eating or drinking, losing half their body weight on the way. They might even snooze on the fly. Researchers have looked at weather patterns for the godwits’ departure from southwest Alaska and have found that the birds often begin their migration when a big low-pressure system is spinning counterclockwise into the Gulf of Alaska. The birds sit tight when the low sits in the Bering Sea, producing headwinds on a journey to the North Pacific. The birds’ ability to choose the right winds seems further supported by the work of the USGS’s Dave Douglas, who looked at the flight paths of 37 godwits the team had fitted with transmitters during the past six years. He found that a vast majority of the birds had tailwinds for the majority of their great migration route encircling the Pacific — from Alaska to New Zealand in fall, from New Zealand to the Yellow Sea in early spring, and from the Yellow Sea back to Alaska later in May.Migration_ArcticTerns.jpgA pair of Arctic Terns.Photo by Dave DunfordIn another study, a researcher with the Max Plank Institute of Ornithology used weather data and a computer model to predict the fastest possible routes bristle-thighed curlews should take when migrating from Alaska’s Seward Peninsula to the South Pacific. “All but two curlews followed the optimum route to their destination,” Douglas said. How do birds manage to take off at the front end of weather systems and somehow ride the best conditions for thousands of miles? Scientists are not sure, Gill said, but the birds seem to be able to integrate changing local weather, such as wind direction and atmospheric pressure, into an excellent flight plan. At Gill’s presentation, National Weather Service meteorologist Gary Hufford said he wished he could recruit godwits to forecast the weather. Though the birds have an excellent track record, Douglas showed a few examples of godwits that faced severe headwinds on their journeys. One got caught in a fast-developing high-pressure system on its journey back from the Yellow Sea to Alaska. The bird got almost within sight of St. Paul Island when it gave up, turned around and flew back to Kamchatka. There, it rested a week before trying again and making it to Alaska (though the added time seemed to have prevented the female from raising a brood). Another godwit ran into a bit of bad luck in its transit from Alaska to New Zealand one fall. An “explosive cyclone” of high winds entrapped the bird, reducing its speed by half. The bird landed short of New Zealand, in New Caledonia, and was dead within a week. Gill and Douglas are now teaming with meteorologists and other scientists to see how large-scale changes in climate, such as more rogue storms, might affect these flyers. Gill wonders if the birds can change as fast as the climate seems to be, but he’s impressed by their resilience. “It’s intriguing to see these guys out there charging into those storms that we’re so afraid of,” Gill said. “These birds have been doing this for tens of thousands of years . . . I don’t think they’re truly as fragile as our anthropomorphic thinking might suggest.”.Find more on the Arctic’s Amazing Birds at Frontier ScientistsOriginally published in the Alaska Science Forum April 5, 2012 Article #2109 Wind-aided birds on their way north by Ned Rozell"This column is provided as a public service by the Geophysical Institute, University of Alaska Fairbanks, in cooperation with the UAF research community. Ned Rozell is a science writer at the institute."

Your step-by-step guide to the perfect sandwich (from Peter Etchells' blog)

Tue, 05/29/2012 - 3:36pm

I’m an avid eater of sandwiches – some might say I’m a connoisseur. If you blindfold me and give me a tuna mayo on white and a ham on brown, and I’ll tell you the difference straight away. If only You Bet was still on television. So, you’ll believe me when I say that I was absolutely ecstatic, chuffed, relieved, verb, when I found out that scientists – sorry, ‘boffins’ – have found the formula for making a perfect sandwich:“It just looks like a mathematics nightmare to us, but we are assured this set of squiggles is the holy grail to making the perfect sandwich.In principle, this formula will also describe the butter seeping into the bread, particularly as it warms up because D can depend upon temperature.{(∂v(x,t))/∂t+ v(x,t)∇.v(x,t)}= ∇p(x,t)+ μ∇^2 v(x,t)+ gAt the interfaces we have a physical and chemical reaction of absorption. The reaction rates depends upon the concentration in the air and the activation energy, Ea, and the area exposed to the air.”How cool is that? Now, that equation looks a little complicated, so in the interests of science, I felt compelled to test it out. That, and I really wanted to know what the perfect sandwich is.STEP 1:{(∂v(x,t))/∂t+ v(x,t)∇.v(x,t)}= ∇p(x,t)+ μ∇^2 v(x,t)+ gHmm. Er, okay, I think I need to start with bread – I guess one of those terms must mean ‘get bread’. Maybe the ‘g’. I don’t know.sammich1-right.jpgSTEP 2: Okay, I’m lost. Thankfully, the press release has an outline of the process in a much easier-to-understand way.“Pressure: Don’t apply unnecessary pressure (the p(x,t) term) it squeezes out the water.”Got it. No pressure.sammich2.pngNo exams for you this summer, Mr Sammich! But the coursework deadlines still apply. Firm but fair, I think.STEP 3:Back to the boffins on this one: “Freshness: The equations describe the deterioration with time due to slow diffusion of the moisture, so eat your sandwich while it is fresh.”But I’ve not made it yet! Okay, I guess I’ll leave this until the end. Note to self: eat sandwich as soon as it is made.STEP 4: “Butter: Use a thick layer of butter, it is hydrophobic and keeps moisture away from the bread.”Now we’re getting somewhere.sammich3-right copy.jpgThick layer of butter, tick. Next!STEP 5:“Moisture: Control the loss, or uptake, of moisture from the air into the bread:1. Butter protects the top.”More butter? Well, okay…sammich4-right copy.jpg“2. Crusts are good; they stop the edges drying out (φair < φbread) or going soggy (φbread < φair).”Well, I do like crusts. This seems to be getting silly now though…sammich5-right copy.jpg“3. Wrap the sandwich tightly to keep air away from the underneath – but don’t squeeze it of course.”Okay, I tried my best on this one, but if you’ve ever got a present from me, you know what I’m like with wrapping things, so I apologise if it’s not very good. Anyway, wrapped tightly, check. I didn’t know what the equation meant, so I went with wrapping paper, is that right?Sammich6-right copy.jpgSTEP 6:“Temperature: Most equations are temperature dependent particularly viscosity and absorption rates, keep it cool to reduce the reaction rates.”Keep it cool, got it.sammich7-right copy.jpgSTEP 7:“Bread: Use the right bread, a thicker slice has a greater resistance to dampness and can’t dry out so quickly either.”Why wasn’t this step 1?! I’ve used completely the wrong bread! So close, yet so far. Oh well, it may not be the perfect sandwich, but I guess it’s pretty close:sammich8-right.jpgSo there you have it, the formula for a perfect sandwich, in 7 easy steps. I must admit, my hopes are slightly dashed – I had hoped for some sort of filling, like tuna mayo with popping candy, or unicorn spam, or something. But I’m not an expert in these matters, so what do I know?No, I’ve not actually lost my mind. I intended to write a thoughtful post about how this type of churnalism makes us all look bad – scientists and journalists alike. I just didn’t know where to start. For a less silly commentary on the ridiculousness of “Scientists find a perfect formula for X”-type articles, see my old blog here, or Ben Goldacre’s column about Blue Monday here. In the meantime, scientists, next time someone asks you to be a boffin for a seasonal formula, try and maintain some self-respect and say no, ok?

Médecins Sans Frontières Scientific Day 2012 (from Farooq Khan's blog)

Mon, 05/28/2012 - 7:04am

Every year Médecins Sans Frontières/ Doctors Without Borders (MSF) hold a conference to present scientific research carried out by their teams from different parts of the world. This year’s conference highlighted some of the strategic challenges facing MSF, and challenged some of our conceptions of medical humanitarian aid, and international development in light of groundbreaking digital technologies. We are as Paul Conneally passionately articulated in his keynote speech – Digital Humanitarian – ‘on the cusp of a global health revolution’. Some of the groundbreaking technologies touched upon included crisis mapping, a technology that is still in its infancy, and the era of big data. The possibilities of how healthcare and humanitarian aid will be transformed by the convergence of ideas and technologies were evident in the poster session; humanitarian technology applications showed refugee camps in Kenya being monitored using satellite imagery and a humanitarian field software kit called joekit. Of the talks demonstrating real world examples, a talk by Isabella Panunzi on teleradiology proved to be immensely inspiring. Isabella’s talk on her experience of applying teleradiology to improve diagnosis of tuberculosis in Thyolo District Hospital, Malawi showcased humanitarian innovation at its best. X-rays are taken at the Malawi hospital and the images are then sent to radiologists in the USA to interpret the images. As a result teleradiology has reduced critical delays and missed diagnosis of TB. This example of digital humanitarianism symbolises a small fraction of what can be potentially achieved in transforming our world. It opens up new possibilities in the transfer of technology and knowledge to the developing world. It also highlights the need for a different approach to modelling the strategic challenges of medical humanitarian aid and international development, and this is where complexity thinking and science can bring together different parts of problems and solutions to construct true holistic solutions. A talk by Jonathan Smith, lecturer in Global Health and Epidemiology of Microbial Diseases at Yale University, brought together the disciplines of the arts and sciences as he gave an inventive take on using research in the digital age. Visually documenting disease and connecting the ‘emotional component to epidemiological data’ is extremely powerful to create change in global health observed Jonathon, as he showed part of a documentary film he is directing, ‘They Go to Die’, a film about,bq. four former migrant gold minework­ers in South Africa and Swazi­land who have contracted drug-resistant tuberculosis (TB) and HIV while working at the gold mine. When the miners fail to improve their TB status at the mining hospital, they are sent home to rural areas of South Africa often with no continuation of care or means for treatment. This practice is often referred to as “sending them home to die” by leading health officials. The film raises concerns of disease and human rights violations uniquely though the context of life, love, and family; unlike traditional health films, it focuses on relationships and bonding, not death and disease. It is a film of uniting across cultures and paints a portrait of common humanity. Jonathon is spearheading the Visual Epidemiology Project, a really exciting project ‘that will integrate sensory engagement (film, artistry) with academic discourse’ and ‘produce future academically valid documentaries on other global health issues.’ I feel like picking up a film camera.

Back to the 'blot (from Eva Amsen's blog)

Sun, 05/27/2012 - 3:06pm

Hey there! Just to let you know, I’ve copied all my posts (and their comments) to my own domain,, where I also added all the posts from my science/music blog, and some other content. It was time to get some of my dispersed blogginess back on the same site, so I’m back on my own domain, where I started. (Okay, that’s not entirely true. I started on a university website and then on Geocities just like everyone else did in the nineties. And every day we had to hand-crank the server, uphill, in the snow. And then we had to chisel our html into stone tablets, and then carry them on horseback.)There is a separate tab on where all the Expression Patterns posts are. Any new posts will appear on easternblot on the main site, with the science/music posts, and with some other, entirely non-scientific, content. Hope to see you there! P.S. I am amusing myself by selecting the “leaving the lab” and “travel” categories for this post.

Confessions of an Open Access Agnostic (from Tom Webb's blog)

Fri, 05/25/2012 - 9:42am

The office that I worked in a few years ago had a window that opened onto the main University of Sheffield concourse. Every so often, lunchtimes would be enlivened by a student protest (typically over fees), during which someone with a megaphone would shout a lot. I remember clearly being struck with the thought, “I wonder if anyone has ever changed their mind about anything as a result of something they heard through a megaphone?”It certainly doesn’t work on me. Even if I broadly agree with the shouty person, the louder they shout the more inclined I am to pick holes in their argument. It is a character trait of mine, I’m not sure if you would call it a flaw or a virtue, that I hate being told what to do and, especially, what to think.All of this explains, perhaps, my ambivalence towards Open Access (OA) publishing. I don’t like being told where I can and can’t publish. I distrust zealots, including well-resourced single-issue campaign groups which will hear no alternative views, which present shades of grey as simple black/white dichotomies, and which (a pet hate) bandy around variants on that tabloid favourite ‘tax-payers’ money’ (when they mean ‘public money’). I worry about people being pressurised into publishing in inappropriate journals, or – if they decide to stick with a non-AO journal, for whatever reason – not receiving the quality of review they deserve because of misguided boycotts. I don’t appreciate non-scientists in the media wading in with their ’aren’t you silly, you’ve been doing this all wrong for decades’ line. And I’m wary of the creeping sense – by no means restricted to science – that content should always be free, regardless of the costs involved in producing it. I’m not comfortable with the big publishers making huge profits from the outputs of science, but I also recognise that good publishers (and their employees) have done, and continue to do a terrific job to ensure the effective communication of science.Of course, there is a more nuanced debate going on underneath the bluster. From what I see on Twitter, today’s debate at Imperial seems to be a good example (#OAdebate). Some very clever and thoughtful people have weighed things up and come down on the side of OA. And I’m not even sure that I don’t agree with them. Certainly, I am all in favour of the broader Open Science agenda – opening up the data we produce, and the tools we use to access and analyse it. But I remain to be convinced that access to primary research papers is such a big issue that it should be pushed above all else (partly because, with a bit of effort or an email or two, it’s usually possible to access most recent papers), and that all of this energy should be focused on it (whilst overlooking the interesting and potentially profound financial and sociological implications for scientists and their institutions).My beef is not at all with OA, but rather in the way that the debate has been framed in terms of good and evil, right and wrong (not a million miles from the ongoing GM debate). Subscription-based (reader pays) publication of publicly-funded research costs public money, and has pros and cons. OA (author pays) publication of publicly funded-research costs public money, and has pros and cons. A shift to OA will not (I’m pretty certain) be accompanied by an injection of new cash, but will rather see a shift from funding infrastructure (especially libraries) to funding individuals (e.g. through research grants). And the debate should be on how best we spend limited public money to communicate the outputs of research in the most effective way. It could be that making all primary research available to everyone is the way to do this (although I don’t think accessing papers is quite so difficult as some would have us believe; and in any case, the readership for the vast majority of papers is tiny). It could be that we’d be better advised to concentrate on more effective communication of key results in other formats, or in making other products of our research (especially data) more widely available. Even if we hold OA as something to aspire to, I feel that blindly pushing it as a top priority risks sidelining more important debates about opening up science.So thanks, but I won’t be signing any petitions just now.

Just how small is an atom? | video | (from Grrl Scientist's blog)

Thu, 05/24/2012 - 4:00am

SUMMARY: Just how small are atoms? And what’s inside them? Just how small are atoms? And what’s inside them? The answers turn out to be astounding, even for those who think they know. This fast-paced video animation uses spectacular metaphors (imagine a blueberry the size of a football stadium!) to give a visceral sense of the building blocks that make our world.

How life begins in the deep ocean | video | (from Grrl Scientist's blog)

Wed, 05/23/2012 - 4:00am

SUMMARY: How do sea creatures get their start in life? This wonderful video explores that theme, bringing you stunning looks at these gorgeous animalsScreengrab. “Don’t let my calmadult exterior fool you;I was a rocket shipI was a wild child.”Where do squid, jellyfish and other sea creatures begin life? The story of a sea urchin reveals a stunningly beautiful saga of fertilization, development and growth in the ocean depths. This video combines lovely imagery with science and poetic narration to tell you about the early life of a sea urchin:

Sunken Treasure under Lake El'gygytgyn (from Liz O'Connell's blog)

Tue, 05/22/2012 - 8:23pm

LakeE_bunks.JPGLaura Nielsen for Frontier ScientistsDeep under a frozen lake in Siberia, Russia, lies a researcher’s gold: an astounding record of past climates preserved in untouched layers of lake bed sediment. In 2009 an international team of scientists headed to Lake El’gygytgyn (pronounced El’geegitgin). They perched specialized drilling equipment atop the icy lake surface and drilled down. At the bottom of the lake as much as a quarter mile (1,312 feet) of sediment awaited them atop the site of a monster meteorite impact. That sediment, withdrawn in cores and shipped to labs in Germany for close scrutiny, represents a continuous record of past Arctic conditions going back 3.6 million years. The more complete picture of paleoclimate it forms will help scientists understand how and why Earth’s climate changed in the past, and give them better tools for predicting the future.LakeE_drill.jpgAn international team of scientists from the United States, Russia, Germany and Austria undertook this geological drilling project as part of the International Continental Drilling Program. The U.S. research team was led by Julie Brigham-Grette of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and included doctoral student Kenna Wilkie and PolarTREC teacher Tim Martin. The diverse team of scientists faced no easy task- six months of hard work in Northeast Siberia during winter. The team hired converted tanks to pull drilling platforms to the extremely remote lake (62 miles north of the Arctic Circle), chartered temperature-controlled cargo planes to safely move the sediment core samples back to specialized labs, and lived in temporary housing atop ice. It was all so they could collect excellent samples: the longest sediment core samples retrieved from the Arctic region. Their successful expedition showcased international scientific cooperation and provided one-of-a-kind data for the scientific community. The project was funded in part by the National Science Foundation: the NSF Division of Earth Sciences and also the NSF Office of Polar Programs. LakeE_map.jpgIt is said that location is everything, and that is certainly true for Lake El’gygytgyn (El’geegitgin). The lake, 7.5 miles wide and 558 feet deep, rests in the middle of a large impact crater formed 3.6 million years ago when a meteor slammed into the Earth. The region in present-day Russia it struck was part of Beringia, the great land bridge which spanned the ocean between Asia and North America. The area was never glaciated. Accordingly, it wasn’t scoured or covered over by crawling ice. Ever since the meteorite struck, the basin where Lake El’gygytgyn rests has accumulated sediment: drifts of pollen, decomposing plant matter, ash from fires or volcanic activity, and other debris. With these samples, the scientists can measure radioactivity, magnetic and sonic properties, electrical resistance, and much more. Like vertical timelines, the striated sediment cores withdrawn from the lake-bed are capable of telling stories about the world. Lake El’gygytgyn is a gem, holding an undisturbed, continuous uninterrupted sediment sequence which has accumulated for the past 3.6 million years.“Earth’s warm and cold cycles over the past one million years varied every 100,000 years at times. Before that, however, climate change, especially in high latitudes, varied over 41,000- and 23,000-year cycles. The record from Lake E will show the ramp up to that type of change in the Earth’s climate.” ~ Julie Brigham-Grette*LakeE_hover.jpgToday Siberia and the Arctic are notoriously cold. The meteorite struck during the warmer Pliocene era, when mammoths, giant ground sloths, and early hominins still roamed the earth. During the Pliocene the area supported a heavily forested ecosystem. Hopefully through research we can fully understand the causes of Arctic climate shift toward a cold permafrost ecosystem some 2 two 3 million years ago. What influences forced such a dramatic change? Understanding that, and comparing past Arctic climate change to paleoclimate records of change that occurred in the rest of the world, will help form more complete climate models. Sediment cores, marine sediment cores, and ice cores all contribute data to an increasingly complex climate map. Climate modeling can help us systematically analyze the past, and predict what will happen as the present-day global climate continues to shift.Our ability to inform policy makers about global/regional climate and related environmental change and its uncertainties depends on our capacity to understand the role of the Arctic region in modulating past periods of change under different climate forcing conditions. ~ Julie Brigham-Grette**While ice cores collected from the Greenland Ice Sheet are long enough to detail about 110,000 years, the sediment cores from Lake El’gygytgyn (El’geegitgin) map 30x more… nearly 3,600,000 years. The undivided core is nearly 1165 feet long (similar to the Empire State Building’s top floor at 1250 feet). It is an unprecedented time-continuous terrestrial record of Arctic conditions. I31 feet of core is from the warm middle Pliocene era- when there was no permanent sea ice in the Arctic Ocean- which may represent an analog for the climate not-too-distant humans will face..LakeE_graphic.jpgWhile most of the core samples were drilled from the lake bed, an additional borehole was cored at the western edge of Lake El’gygytgyn. The borehole was fitted with instruments to monitor ground temperatures and will continue to contribute to the Global Terrestrial Network for Permafrost.Read more on Permafrost & Arctic Climate Change Watch at Frontier Scientists.References:* El’gygytgyn press release NSF** Lake El’gygytgyn’s emerging IPY record of Pliocene to recent Arctic change Julie Brigham-GretteLake El’gygytgyn Drilling Project DOSECC Drilling, Observation and Sampling of the Earths Continental CrustThe Thrill to Drill in the Chill IPY International Polar YearGeologic Climate Research in Siberia Tim Martin with PolarTRECTeam led by UMass Amherst Scientists Drills Deep into the Arctic for Climate Change Insights UMassAmherstDrilling success summary May 2009 UMassAmherst

On the Importance of understanding real interest rates (from Neil Davies' blog)

Tue, 05/22/2012 - 11:20am

For an economics student, understanding the difference between real and nominal interest rates is pretty important.Nominal interest rates are the headline rate given in on a loan or debt. For example, a mortgage might charge a fixed nominal interest rate of 3.5%.However, over time inflation, a rise in the general price level erodes the value of the pound. A year ago £1 would buy more goods than it does today. In the year to April, the Office of National Statistics estimated that the average increase in the consumer price index was 3%. So in terms of goods and services a pound in 2012 was worth 3% less than a pound in 2011. This matters for debts and investments.Real interest rates refer to the interest rates on debt after taking into account the effects of inflation. So if inflation is 5% and the interest on a debt is 4% then the real interest rate is -1%. This means that after a year the lender’s investment would buy 1% fewer goods and services.Currently the government can borrow at very low interest rates. The nominal interest rate on government debt due in 30 years is 3.2%. But, this ignores the effect of inflation, which each year erodes the value of the debt. The government also issues debt which is indexed to inflation. These bonds are traded, and provide an indication of the real interest rates at which the UK government can borrow. The Debt Management Office reports that for debt due in 2062, the real interest rate is -0.008%. This means investors are willing to lend to the UK government at negative real interest rates over 50 years. In terms of goods and services, investors in these bonds are guaranteed to get less in 2062 than they lent today.These low interest rates are not simply due to quantitative easing. Real interest rates have steadily declined for the last 20 years:real_interest_rates_1985_2012.bmp Source: The Bank of England.Why does this matter? The real interest is used to make investment decisions. The Treasury evaluates its investment decisions using a real interest rate of 3.5%.This over estimates the cost of investment. For instance, if the government was evaluating an investment of £6bn over 30 years, and they assumed a 3.5% real interest rate, and they paid back £200m in real terms of the capital each year. The total costs of the borrowing would be £9.25bn, £6bn in capital and £3.25bn in interest payments. However, if they used the real interest rate that the government can actually borrow at, -0.016%, the total costs would only be £5.99bn. By using the wrong discount rate the treasury over estimates the costs of investment by over 50%.This reduces the number of public sector investments which will be cost effective, so public sector investment will be lower. Indeed, the Government has dramatically lowered public sector investment from £52bn in 2009/10 to £29bn in 2011/12 in 2012 prices. Is this sensible when the government can borrow at negative real interest rates?Unfortunately, this distinction between nominal and real interest rates is not always well understood, even by the economics editor of The Sunday Times, David Smith. He argued that nominal interest rates should be used to evaluate investments. Economist Jonathan Portes was rather scathing:"he genuinely doesn’t understand the government’s intertemporal budget constraint – a standard identity, taught in any decent graduate macro or public finance course "It’s hard to escape the conclusion that reading The Times will actually make you less informed about the functioning of the economy.Be careful who you read, not all economics commentators are created equal.

Cardinal logic (from Lee Turnpenny's blog)

Tue, 05/22/2012 - 10:15am

I am provoked into re-addressing the defensive decrying of secularist critique of what the prominent faithful hold dear (ie relevance through political influence), as promulgated by Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor who last week visited my hometown to speak ‘on the threats facing Christianity in modern Britain.’Having read the text of his address, I wrote to the Leicester Mercury to inquire: ‘Can I ask… has, or will, the Leicester Mercury ran/be running an item on Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor’s address at Leicester Cathedral last Tuesday evening?’ Unsurprisingly, I heard nothing back. So I don’t know. And can only assume they would not welcome a piece criticising the Cardinal – no matter how warranted.Well, let’s have a look, shall we?It’s a long speech, so I won’t waste your time scoffing at his introductory comments on the Enlightenment. Rather, further to my recent dissing of Baroness Warsi egregious, Vatican-fawning, mis-representation of secularism and secularists, what chiefly concerns is the derogatory public portrayal of those who (justifiably) object to the undue clout he and his ilk retain, as sanctioned by our childish ‘constitution’. Having already assumed the moral high ground, Murphy-O’Connor claims:bq. ‘No one is forced to be a Christian. But no one should be forced to live according to the new secular religion as if it alone were definitive and obligatory for all humankind.’Nevermind the questionability of the first part of that statement, this just drips with paranoid hypocrisy. Definitive and obligatory? From a pillar of the Catholic Church, that is quite breath-taking in its shamelessness. The figurative labelling of secularism as a religion, reducing the argument then to merely an inter-faith bickering contest, wherefrom he can continue the theme:bq. ‘The propaganda of secularism and its high priests wants us to believe that religion is dangerous for our health. It suits them to have no opposition to their vision of a brave new world, the world which they see as somehow governed only by people like themselves.’Propaganda? What, like this? And isn’t the association with the science-fiction dystopia of ‘brave new world’ interesting, following his Enlightenment-resenting pre-amble? Science without the moral underpinning of faith: dangerous, eh? How trite; how bereft of answers from someone who is supposedly ordained to provide the way to them…bq. ‘Indeed, in the last century, most violence is perpetrated by secular states upon their own people. It was secular and totalitarian authorities of the last century that exercised horrific violence and tried to subject their citizens to their own destructive philosophies.’Here we go again. Why do these fanatics keep doing this? An educated man, able to draw upon all those smartly inserted theological and philosophical quotations, wilfully misrepresenting the definition of secular, which he deliberately conflates with the atheism he considers “the greatest of evils.” The implication that secularists and/or atheists are unavoidably of a Maoist/Nazi/Stalinist mindset. Why is no-one in authority slapping him down for uttering this tosh and having him charged under (hopefully soon to be revoked) Section 5 of the Public Order Act? (I’m being ironic here, in case you don’t read me so.) Because ‘His Eminence’ is… eminent, and is thus, with our PM’s endorsement, free to abuse his sacerdotal position to denigrate both secularists and atheists as " not fully human."bq. ‘What such people don’t realise is that true freedom only exists within constraints; and far from expanding freedom, unconstrained liberalism leads straight to abuses of power. We can see this from the logical false faiths that are filling the vacuum.’Abuses of power? Let’s not open that file. Christianity being the only true faith, right? (And Catholicism presumably the only true denomination, but best not mention that when speaking as guest in an Anglican cathedral.) I would be interested to learn from the Cardinal of his criteria for labelling a faith as ‘logically false’ when his tactic employs more logical fallacies than a Vulcan following a bang on the ‘I have tried to say what ways we should stand up against the encroaching militant secularism and the consequences of its creed. It requires much more than solving our economic problems because it requires us to discover again who we are and to unmask the god or gods we follow.’He affects to speak on behalf of all faiths (including the ‘false’ polytheistic ones, although not ‘the new secular religion’ ), but he isn’t really. This, it strikes me, is all an obfuscating ploy to maintain establishment significance, and to detract from certain other issues which it is hoped have gone quiet. The stock mantra of assertions (now) implicating secularism (previously atheism) for… pretty much anything ‘sinful.’Despite the grudging token acknowledgement that ‘No one could deny and should deny the great advances that the Enlightenment has made from which we still benefit today’, it is the Enlightenment he considers sowed the seeds of secularism: ’One objective of the Enlightenment was, however, to relegate religion to the private sector.’ ‘Objective’?! So it failed, then? Forgive my confusion.

Is it helpful to accuse parents of neglect when it comes to technology use? (from Peter Etchells' blog)

Tue, 05/22/2012 - 4:30am

In mid-March, I attended a debate held at the Royal Institution, on how journalists and scientists can better work together in order to avoid erroneous reporting on scientific issues. One of the take-home messages of the debate was a call for scientists to more rigorously watch their own neighbourhood, and highlight problem articles. A number of news media outlets have picked up on a story today from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child health annual conference in Glasgow, with headlines ranging from the relatively moderate “Childhood ‘screen time’: Warning over TV and computers” through to the sensationalist and insulting “Mobile addict parents guilty of child ‘neglect’ warns psychologist”. The story comes from Dr Aric Sigman, who is giving a guest lecture entitled “Alcohol and electronic media: units of consumption”. In the various press reports on the lecture, a number of worries have been raised about electronic media use. I address two of these below. In doing so, I have tried to include relevant links to research, where appropriate. I would also like to add the caveat that this post is based on press releases in the media, and not Dr Sigman’s presentation, which, at the time of writing this, has not yet been given. As a result, if any of these points are erroneous, I would encourage Dr Sigman to report them to the relevant press outlets along with clarifications, and I will update this post accordingly.1) From the Telegraph and Daily Mail articles: “A generation of young people is growing up with a virtual addiction to computers, televisions and smartphones with striking similarities to alcoholism” and “He will tell a group of Britain’s leading doctors today that the growing addiction could leave a generation suffering damage to the body as well as the brain.”The question of whether or not one can become addicted to technology is a contentious one. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Disorders, which contains standard criteria for classifying mental disorders, does not currently contain any sort of classification for internet, technology or video game addiction. While that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist, it does mean there is no standardised way to assess it. In turn, that means that it is difficult to compare and amalgamate the research that has been conducted; if two papers show findings for and against the existence of such an addiction, and they use different measures of technology use and addiction, we can’t be sure whether an inappropriate measure in one study is the cause of their results. However, the general consensus in recent years is that it is no longer appropriate to model technology addiction in the same way you would model alcohol or drug addiction; to do so simplifies the issue in a way that does not adequately capture the variability in the population of problematic users (see Shapira et al., 2003). A meta-analysis of research into internet addiction looked at 39 studies between 1996-2006, and noted numerous problems in data collection and analysis that in part boil down to inconsistent criteria being used to define addictive behaviour (see Byun et al., 2009). As a result, it is unclear where Dr Sigman is drawing his conclusions from – they do not appear to be based on recent research in the area. Certainly, as far as I am aware, there is absolutely no evidence anywhere that technology and new media use causes brain damage.2) From the Daily Mail article: “The latest statistics show that 12 to 15-year-olds spend an average of more than six hours a day slumped in front of screens. Dr Aric Sigman wants TV banned for toddlers and severely rationed for other youngsters and will warn that parents who use technology as a ‘babysitter’ could be setting up their children for a lifetime of ill health. His work and studies by other researchers link time spent in front of screens with health problems including obesity, high cholesterol and blood pressure, inattentiveness and declines in maths and reading, as well as sleep disorders and autism.”I can’t seem to find the source of these statistics, and would be grateful for further information.* However, I did find a report from Childwise, dated January 2012 (here). This survey notes that the number of children with their own TV set is currently declining, as is time spent watching TV (a reported 2.5 hours per day, on average). The report also notes that children ‘spend an average of 2.4 hours per week playing sport at school, unchanged since 2008’, but that ‘time spent playing sport out of school has fallen this year, to an average of 2.9 hours per week, down from 3.1 hours last year’.There is evidence to suggest that average hours of TV viewing are correlated with negative health outcomes, such as excess weight (Hancox & Poulton, 2006), decreased hip bone mineral density in girls (Janz et al., 2001), as well as being a predictor of weight gain in adulthood (Ekelund et al., 2006). Based on these findings and others, recommendations have already been made in the scientific literature about limiting television time for preschool children (see de Decker et al., 2012). Moreover, it’s worth noting that relatively little research has been conducted in the era of the Nintendo Wii, and recent studies (Graf et al., 2009) have shown that playing active video games actually increases energy expenditure in children – coupled with the apparent decreases that Childwise report in TV viewing, the sensationalist nature of the way Dr Sigman’s opinions are being reported seem unnecessary and unhelpful – particularly in regards to the link with autism. As Professor Dorothy Bishop has eloquently outlined before now, mentioning ‘links’ in this way implies a causal direction – that TV use, or internet use, somehow causes autism – and this has the potential to mislead the public and causes unnecessary anguish.I have tried to highlight relevant articles above, but I must emphasise that the research literature on these issues is huge – a PubMed search for terms including “television use”, “social media”, “cognition”, “psychology” and “psychiatry” pulls up over 3,000 hits. Obviously not all of these are relevant, but they point to the complexities inherent in understanding how technology in its various forms affects us. New media is exactly that; new. Researchers are doing their best to figure out the effects of both short- and long-term use, but in the grand scheme of things we’ve really only just started. And while I think it is good to have a debate about this that engages the public, it is not fair to selectively pick research that highlights only one side of the discussion – as Dr Ben Goldacre notes, ‘cherry-picking’ sends (incorrect) messages out that there is consensus in the scientific community, or that there is overwhelming evidence for one side of the story. Dr Sigman himself has admitted to doing this before now, and today’s press releases seem to be in the same vein. To accuse parents of child neglect, as it appears Dr Sigman is doing in the media today, strikes me as scaremongering, and scientifically irresponsible. If you have a genuine concern about something that may have serious health risks, you have a duty as a scientist to outline those concerns objectively in a peer-reviewed academic research paper. Searches using PubMed and Web of Knowledge (academic article search engines) yield no results for any research by A Sigman on any of these issues; if anyone could point me to research that Dr Sigman has actually done in this area, I would be grateful. *edit: Vaughan Bell’s piece mentions the source of the statistics: Childwise, and it can be yours for £1800.

60 | video | (from Grrl Scientist's blog)

Tue, 05/22/2012 - 4:00am

SUMMARY: This morning, we learn how to count like the ancient Babylonians (oh, and we learn about the number 60, too)!I’ve often wondered why there are sixty seconds in a minute and sixty minutes in an hour when really, we can define these units of time in any way we wish. So why don’t we instead have 100 seconds in a minute and 100 minutes in an hour? That certainly seems more metric.

Wetware is Real (from Graham Morehead's blog)

Mon, 05/21/2012 - 11:34pm

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Cathy’s eyes opened. She became aware of an unrelenting sound in the background, ‘Woosh, hiss, woosh, hiss, ….’ A plastic tube emerged from her body and disappeared into the machine making the noise. She couldn’t move.

Cathy remembered feeling sick. She remembered her son helping her up the stairs. She had been healthy. She wasn’t a smoker. What happened?

After passing out that day, Cathy had a brain-stem stroke. She barely survived. Now she was awake. She was aware. She was able to sense everything but was locked inside a body that wouldn’t move.

WHY ARE THERE BRAINS?Daniel_Wolpert.jpgThe real reason for brains, according to Daniel Wolpert, is to control movement — the contraction of muscles.“We have a brain for one reason and one reason only, and that’s to produce adaptable and complex movements.” – Daniel WolpertWolpert calls this answer “blindingly obvious,” and he calls himself a “movement-chauvinist.” Movement, is the only way we have for affecting the world around us. The clinching evidence he offers is the Sea Squirt. In its juvenile form it swims around in the ocean. At some point in its maturation it settles on a rock where it will spend the rest of its life. The first thing it does upon settlement is to digest its own brain for food.

Once you don’t need to control muscles, you don’t need a brain. What if you have a brain, but you can’t control your muscles?

SHOCK THE MONKEYmonkey-robot-arm.jpgFor years now, scientists have been mucking about inside monkey brains. They put electrodes in there to learn about simian muscle control. More recently researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Motorlab gave a monkey the ability to control a disembodied robotic arm.

A monkey was restrained in a chair (arms stuck in tubes). A set of electrodes had been surgically implanted into the part of its brain that controls arm and hand movement. The monkey was able to control the robot arm with sufficient dexterity to feed himself marshmallows. Even more surprising was when the monkey licked the robot fingers [MORE].

Researchers at Duke were also able to teach one of their rhesus monkeys to control a robot arm. One day this monkey had an epiphany. Its two biological arms went totally limp. It learned to control the robot arm purely by thought. It became the first vertebrate with exactly three separate arms [MORE].

2016 will be the year of the fire monkey, but 2011 was the year of the cyborg monkey. These Duke researchers were able to complete the Brain-Machine-Brain interface. This monkey could control a robot arm and feel with a virtual hand. Motor control and sensory input. This is huge. The implications for helping human quadriplegics cannot be overstated.

HUMAN CYBORG RELATIONSThe future is within our grasp. The holy grail of human-computer interaction is just around the corner. When am I gonna get my Matrix Port? For whom should this technology be used?

cathy-hutchinson.jpgIn 2005 Cathy got a call. A friend had heard about a research group called BrainGate which was looking for quadriplegics for a study. They wanted to implant an electrode in her brain. Surgeons installed the implant later that year.

Cathy sat in front of a battery of screens. The output of her implant splayed copiously across those screens. They were just observing — trying to make sense of it all. Then they took the output of her implant and connected it to the mouse control. It moved. Cathy moved the mouse across the screen using only her mind.

Seven years later it was time to make it real. They connected Cathy’s implant to a robotic arm. The robotic hand had a thermos in its grasp. They turned control of the arm over to Cathy. By pure thought she caused the arm to bring the thermos up to her lips. She took a sip. For the first time in years, Cathy gave herself a drink.

SCIENCE FICTIONCathy and a select few other quadriplegics have had the chance to move a robotic arm with pure thought. Tim Hemmes recently gave his girlfriend a high-five. His first in years [MORE]. This technology works. It really works. We can do this. We can cure paralysis. It’s just a matter of time.

It’s going to take significant time, of course, but not as much as I once thought. Decades. A few years ago I started working on a sci-fi novel. It includes some passages about neural implants which don’t seem so amazing anymore. I’ll have to try a little harder to imagine the future.

What is in our future? What else does your brain do? What can you imagine but are unable to do? Would you like to write some checks your body could never cash? The rhesus monkey was able to move the arm as if it were a third and totally separate arm. If you could control a video game by pure thought, would you do better? If you could download documents directly to your brain, would you read faster? Forget words and pictures. What if you could download fully formed concepts and experiences? We might find that the richness of brain-to-brain communication (Strange-Days-style) is much richer than anything we can experience through the eyes and ears. We might just lock ourselves into The Matrix willingly.


Teenager Develops EEG-controlled Robotic Arm for Science Fair

BrainGate Wikipedia entry

Brain-machine-brain interface

Monkeys’ brain waves offer quadriplegics hope

Paralyzed woman controls robotic arm with her mind

The Woman Who Controlled a Robotic Arm With Her BrainParalyzed patients move robots with minds

Stroke Victims Think, Robotic Arm Acts

Anne Warner, Emeritus Professor of Developmental Biology (from Farooq Khan's blog)

Mon, 05/21/2012 - 8:20am

I felt compelled to write this after learning about the death of Professor Anne Warner last Wednesday. I came to know her over the last few months as we were working on a project together. There are some people who make an impression upon you even before you’ve met them. When we first started discussing our project, Professor Warner was concerned about her own disability, and whether it would be a hindrance. Her question at the time made me think about why she felt the need to ask such a question. I sensed vulnerability in her question and this touched me, it also made me reflect upon the state of our society and world. These thoughts led to a myriad of thoughts about all the injustices, pain and suffering we see all around the world today. For me, they are all part of the same web, interconnected and pervasive. Her vulnerability about her condition moved me, and when I met her, I sensed the pain of someone who’s been through great trials in their life. I felt a connection with her, and when I read what a friend and colleague had written about her, it further reaffirmed my picture of her, and I imagined what she must have been like when she was younger, brilliant, beautiful and vivacious. bq. She belonged to a generation of women scientists who had to make sacrifices for their careers. Like many of her generation she could be characterised as ‘formidable’ because she would not be ignored. Throughout her career Anne expected to be treated as an equal and worked to achieve it. She never tried to be a role model, she was not that self-conscious, but she was, nevertheless.Professor Warner provokes deep questions in me, and in her death I reflect upon what humanity values, and what it celebrates. We live in a world of distracting abnormal noise, which veils many of us from the reality of life and the certainty of death. When someone of great intellectual stature dies, the world should know it has lost a great mind, and reflect upon this loss, and our own mortality. I feel privileged to have met her, she left a deep impression upon me, and I hope I can complete the project in her honour.

Solar Eclipse 2012 in Louisiana (from Paige Brown's blog)

Sun, 05/20/2012 - 10:43pm

My picture of the solar eclipse tonight, from my perch atop a levee overlooking the Mississippi river in Baton Rouge, Louisiana! Yes, Baton Rouge only saw a partial solar eclipse (the moon covering a portion of the Sun’s surface) right before sunset… but the sight was still amazingly cool!Solar Eclipse PKB_2.JPGAnd the progression!!Solar 1.JPGSolar 2.JPGSolar 3.JPGSolar 4.JPGSolar 5.JPG

Putting the 'Fear' in Climate Change (from Paige Brown's blog)

Sat, 05/19/2012 - 3:04am

dark window.jpg Although shocking, catastrophic, and large-scale representations of the impacts of climate change may well act as an initial hook for people’s attention and concern, they clearly do not motivate a sense of personal engagement with the issue and indeed may act to trigger barriers to engagement such as denial… – Saffron O’Neill and Sophie Nicholson-Cole, 2009According to Daniel Gardner, author of book The Science of Fear, good science, with all its proper caveats and degrees of uncertainty, does not lend itself to scary headlines and shocking one-line summaries. But fear and stories of conflict often ‘make it’ in journalistic news. So do scientists need to radically change the way they talk about the science of climate change to make it ‘scary’? Do scientists and climate communicators really need the ‘scary’ headlines and alarming facts to get media coverage? Maybe so…But do scary headlines and alarming facts really increase public awareness and concern about climate change? The answer to this second question is not so clear…According to a study by researchers at the Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research in the UK, fear-inducing messages on climate change are widely used in the public domain. But, the researchers claim, some literature suggests that using fearful representations of climate change may actually be counterproductive. This 2009 study found that fear is not a useful tool for motivating genuine personal engagement with climate change and action.Newell and Pitman (2010) provide the following tip to climate change communicators: bq. Use vivid images of global warming, like shrinking glaciers and melting ice sheets, to engage emotional processing, but do so judiciously to avoid emotional numbing or a ‘despair’ response.Global climate change is occurring as more energy is entering our planet’s atmosphere than is leaving, setting up a net energy imbalance that can produce negative consequences for the climate system and delicate ecosystems.Imagine you hear that the total energy imbalance of the Earth is now 6/10ths of a Watt per square meter. Not so bad right? But what if you hear the following:400,000 Hiroshima atomic bomb explosions per day, 365 days per year – that is how much extra energy Earth is now gaining each day due to human-emitted greenhouse gasses. Sound a bit scarier? Renowned climate scientist James Hansen used this analogy in his recent 2010 Ted Talkclimatechange.html ‘Why I must speak out about climate change’. Although I personally applaud Hansen’s communication efforts, fearful images of atomic bombs may not be the best way to engage the public…Are fear-based messaging tactics doing anything to increase public concern about and engagement in climate change? Climate communicators have defined engagement as a state of connection comprising cognition, emotion, and behavior. There is much that individuals can do to mitigate climate change, when around 1/3rd of greenhouse gas emissions are the result of energy use in the home and personal travel. Avoiding the more severe impacts of climate change requires action on many levels, including the personal level. But to make public engagement happen, we need a concerned and aware public. To get a concerned and aware public, we need appropriate communications on the part of scientists, politicians, and the media alike.Fear-inducing phrases, messages, and images of climate change are rampant in today’s media environment:bq. “It is a terrible, immense, and apocalyptic problem, beyond human control.”According to researchers at the Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research, the well-known IPCC Working Group I report on climate change did not include words like catastrophic, shocking, terrifying, or devastating – all words that appeared in the media in relation to the IPCC report.This type of language is reflective of fear appeal: a persuasive communication attempt designed to arouse fear in order to promote precautionary motivation and self-protective action. (Ruiter, Abraham, & Kok, 2001)Global climate change isn’t an issue that the public can sink their teeth into – it is distant and abstract. So how can scientists and science communicators elicit public concern and engagement without using strong language and even fear appeals?For starters, researchers of the Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research study found that many individuals already have a baseline fear about climate change. Participants in their study said things like:bq. It just seems all kind of out of control. The whole world does. I mean, if you think about it too much, it’s rather scary. How’s it all going to end up? I don’t know if I’ll want to be around.Instead of using fear, many climate change communications studies suggest that making climate change personally relevant and salient to everyday life would do more for public concern and engagement than strict efforts at fear appeals (M. Nisbet). If people don’t understand how climate change is going to affect them, they are not going act. But here we have another problem, because when it comes to specific local impacts, there is still much scientific uncertainty. We can be 99% sure that global climate change is occurring due to human activities, and that it will have local impacts, but as of yet science can’t tell local residents exactly what the impacts will look like. But regardless, efforts at engaging publics with personally and community relevant messaging on climate change, and communications efforts that promote concern without fear, may perhaps be effective.People also must feel that they can DO something about climate change… they must feel empowered… and fear doesn’t seem to give an impression of empowerment for action.O’Neil and Nicholson-Cole, Researchers at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, concluded in their 2009 study:bq. Fearful representations of climate change appear to be memorable and may initially attract individuals’ attention. However, they can also act to distance and disempower individuals in terms of their sense of personal engagement with the issue.The disengagement outcome of fear appeals is especially worrying for an issue such as climate change, which requires individual and well as collective and policy action if mitigation is to be effective. It looks like fear isn’t all it’s cracked up to be when it comes to global warming. Scientists and communicators would do better to emphasize personal relevance, public frames of reference on the issue, everyday issues, and personal efficacy. What can you do about climate change? If you trust the science… a lot.“On the one hand, as scientists we are ethically bound to the scientific method, in effect promising to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but – which means that we must include all the doubts, the caveats, the ifs, ands, and buts. On the other hand, we are not just scientists but human beings, as well. And like most people we’d like to see the world a better place, which in this context translates into our working to reduce the risk of disastrous climate change. To do that we need to get some broad-based support, to capture the public’s imagination. That, of course, means getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we may have. This ‘double ethical bind’ we frequently find ourselves in cannot be solved by any formula. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. I hope that means being both.” – Stephen Schneider, Stanford climatologist, in interview with Discover magazine. In The Science of Fear by Daniel Gardner_Climate change and fear appeals… putting the ‘fear’ into children:_References:O’Neill, S., & Nicholson-Cole, S. (2009). “Fear Won’t Do It” Promoting Positive Engagement With Climate Change Through Visual and Iconic Representations. Science Communication, 30(3), 355-379. Nisbet, M. Study Finds That Fear Won’t Don’t Do It: Why Most Efforts at Climate Change Communication Might Actually Backfire. Big Think

Don't tell me not to learn! (from Eva Amsen's blog)

Wed, 05/16/2012 - 6:51am

I mentioned at the start of the year that I was doing CodeYear. You may be wondering how that is going. Still going strong! After about 5 weeks I cobbled together a little DNA-translator; a few weeks later I finished the entire JavaScript section. We’re now in html/css lessons, but I already know most of that, so I’m not learning much right now. (I did learn one important new thing, though. I found out why so many websites look the same these days. Twitter Bootstrap! Aha! Oh Twitter, how far your influence stretches…) So, it’s still fun, and I’m still learning things. I actually tried to teach myself some coding (Python) a few years ago, but had to admit defeat – something I don’t easily do. I bought books and everything. I thought I’d be okay because I did take some classes at university. But even with the beginner books I was stuck. Why? I didn’t know what to use to actually type the code in, compile, run – all that stuff. I could write code in a text editor…and then…what? I had nothing to work in. CodeYear is web-based, so you type in the browser, and now I can finally play around with things. When I made the DNA translator, however, I still had to google a bit to find out how to actually put javascript code into an html file so that I could display it on my own site. (I’m guessing they will teach this at some point, but we hadn’t covered it yet in week 5.)I mention this to emphasize the difference between Learning to Code for Fun (which I’m doing) and Learning to Code for Serious (which involves knowing exactly what platforms to run your code on before you even start to learn the language, and not typing in browsers).It’s rather like the difference between learning science from watching a lot of science documentaries and visiting the science museum, versus learning science in actual labs at actual universities. If you want to work in science, you do the latter. If you’re just interested and want to know more, you do the former. If there were no documentaries and science museums, someone interested in science (but not professionally) would have to get their hands on university textbooks or journal papers and just jump in the deep end. That’s how I felt when I tried to learn to code a few years ago and didn’t even know what program to write the code in. So as a geek-of-all-trades who likes learning more about everything, I’m happy that there is a site that lets me play around and learn things, just like I can learn more about geology by visiting a museum or watching documentaries or looking at rock formations while on vacation. And if I don’t want to code or don’t want to learn about geology, I don’t have to do those things. Nobody is forcing me. Nobody is forced to learn anything about science after the age of about 15, and yet there are lots of people visiting science museums and watching science programming to learn more about cell biology or physics or geology. Wouldn’t it be weird if geologists got upset that random people wanted to learn more about geology? If they wanted geologists to be the only people to study rocks? That is apparently how some programmers feel about coding outreach projects. I read this blog post yesterday, and even commented, but it’s still bothering me. Today I realized why: I should be allowed to learn ANYTHING I WANT. EVERYONE should be allowed to learn ANYTHING THEY WANT. I love when people do science experiments on their own, and I have never met a scientist who was opposed to the concept of amateur scientists. We don’t always take them seriously, but surely anyone can do science if they want to! What is this ridiculous elitist attitude of stating that non-programmers shouldn’t code?You’re only making me want LEARN HARDER.

Behind the scenes at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology hawk cam | video | (from Grrl Scientist's blog)

Wed, 05/16/2012 - 4:00am

SUMMARY: This video captures the time and effort it took to mount a birdcam on a light tower overlooking Cornell University’s athletic fieldScreengrab: Adult female red-tailed hawk, Buteo jamaicensis, “Big Red” puts the finishes touches on her nest.One of the many things that I love about all this newly affordable miniaturised technology is the astonishing number of birdcams that are sprouting up all around the world. These birdcams are providing the general public with an unprecedented “bird’s eye view” of a growing number of animal species for the first time in the history of mankind. This can only be good for animals and for conservation. This video provides a behind-the-scenes look at the expertise and effort that went in to mounting the red-tailed hawk cams on the light tower that is nearly 80 feet (24.4 metres) above Cornell University’s athletic field.

A Planet Under Pressure, and Why Gender Matters (from Paige Brown's blog)

Tue, 05/15/2012 - 11:33pm

Thumbnail image for Raindrops on leaf.jpg “I believe we want a world that is pro-poor, pro-development, and pro-environment.”So said Bina Agarwal, Director and Professor of Economics at the Institute of Economic Growth at Delhi University, India, at the Planet Under Pressure 2012 conference in London – an international conference focusing on solutions to the global sustainability challenge. At the conference, Bina expressed her concern for food security and forest protection in light of global climatic changes, calling for “participation at all levels, at both the global and the local, between countries and within communities…” This quote by Bina from Planet Under Pressure 2012 says it all: “Even without climate change, we will need extraordinary efforts to feed 9 billion [people] by 2050. With climate change, the task is mammoth.”Bina has written extensively on environmental action and agriculture issues from a gender perspective, writing about gender differences and why they matter when it comes to conserving the environment and organizing sustainable collective action initiatives. For example, women in many developing countries have a large stake in local forests, and would benefit from community forest management. Forest decline is currently undermining biodiversity and aggravating our planet’s ability to cope with global warming. Forest decline also critically affects nutrition supplements for the poor in developing countries, leading to Bina’s call for ‘collectivity’ – collective economic and community-driven initiatives to manage forests and promote sustainable technologies – lead by women in developing countries.Why does Bina emphasize women’s role in collective environmental action? Rural women tend to be more resource constrained, dependent on social networks, and compelled to resolve conflicts. These tendencies, along with the fact that rural women stand to gain tremendously from joint economic ventures, make women potential key players in collective sustainable action.In response to a question posed by Bina to village woman about conflict resolution due to women’s interdependence, one village woman told Bina:bq. Women reflect more. They say: even if I am fighting with her now, I have to go together with her for weeding or water, or if I don’t have flour in the house, I will have to borrow from her. This is always at the back of our minds. (Agarwal, 2010, p. 74)Intrigued by Bina’s talk at Planet Under Pressure 2012, I e-mailed her to ask a few questions of my own:What stakes do women have in forest management? Women in developing countries, especially in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa depend on forests for many items of daily use, particularly firewood. This constitutes the single most important source of cooking fuel in rural regions of developing countries. In 2001, an estimated 65-75% of rural households in India and over 90% of rural households in Nepal depended on firewood for a part or most of their domestic energy. Almost all of this is gathered (and not purchased) and the gathering is done mainly by women and children. Globally in 2005, 2.4 billion households were using conventional biofuels, especially firewood, for cooking and heating. In addition, depending on availability, women collect fodder, wild vegetables, fruits, nuts, herbs and many other items from local forests. We tend to forget how important locally gathered food items are as dietary supplements and hence food security, especially for the poor. Women’s dependence on forests is thus daily, while men’s subsistence use of forests is occasional since they mainly use them for timber, agricultural tools, home repair, etc. Hence, women have a strong stake in forest management, both because they need the forest to improve and regenerate and because they would enjoy rules that allow them to extract firewood and other items when the forest does regenerate. Why does including women in forest governance improve protection and increase the ecological knowledge pool?When women are included in forest governance, information about forest protection rules is more likely to reach other women, since communication channels tend to be gendered. Women who are part of forest governance are also more motivated to follow the rules themselves and induct other women into informal patrolling groups and keeping a lookout for intruders. Including women thus vastly increases the number of people committed to protection. Including landless women can make even more of a difference, since they have the highest stake in forest conservation outcomes, but are also most likely to resent forest closure if they are not included in forest management.Moreover, women bring to forest governance additional knowledge about the local ecology. This knowledge tends to be gendered since men and women use different components of the ecosystem. Women tend to know a great deal about the products they extract and how to extract them without causing harm to forest regeneration. They also make many useful suggestions on what to plant and where. All this can enhance biodiversity in community managed forests. – Bina**What role do women play in sustainability and climate change mitigation?Women’s role in community forest management can enhance the sustainability of local resources in many ways. I found in my research on community forest management in India and Nepal that groups that had a higher proportion of women (say 25-33% or more) were substantially more likely to have positive conservation outcomes. In Nepal, all women groups were 51% more likely than other groups to show improved forest canopy in the forest plots they were protecting, even though they were given more degraded and younger forests to manage (see Gender and Green Governance, OUP, 2010). Since forests serve as carbon sinks, this gender impact has positive implications for climate change mitigation. – BinaWhat types of local and community “collective action” innovation do you believe could significantly help the future of food security and climate change mitigation/adaptation?**In many parts of the world women play a very important role in food security as farmers and food producers. They are also the main food managers in the home. Increasingly too, as more men than women move to non-farm jobs, women are a growing proportion of the farmers in Asia and Africa. However, most women face serious constraints in their access to land, credit, inputs and markets. A potential institutional innovation would be for them to cooperate by forming what I term a “collectivity”. T_hey could pool their limited funds to lease land, buy inputs, plan crops and undertake soil conservation measures._ In addition, as a group they would have greater bargaining power with governments and in markets to obtain what they need for increasing their productivity. They would also be able to invest in local irrigation systems, crop insurance, and other measures needed to help them adapt to climate change.Look for me to cover more of Bina’s work on agricultural production collectives and sustainable action scenarios in the future!;bpr3.tags=Medicine%2CBiomedical+Engineering%2C+Cell+Biology%2C+Synthetic+Biology%2C+Materials%2C+Nanoscience%2C+Biological+Chemistry%2C+Chemical+Engineering%2C+Science+Communication%2C+Education%2C+Career%2C+Genetics%2C+Stem+Cells">Bina Agarwal (2000). Conceptualizing Environmental Collective Action: Why Gender Matters Cambridge Journal of Economics