Archive for November, 2008

Published by Rosalind on 30 Nov 2008

Robots (and especially their behavior)

Have you ever thought about how robots might act towards people in the future? There are lots of different popular ideas – ranging from scary menacing robots like the Terminator to friendly cute ones like some of the Star Wars bots. Recently, plenty of people are thinking about machine intelligence, and the question of how our machines could be guaranteed to be helpful not harmful.

In this article, Six Ways To Build Robots That Do Humans No Harm, you can explore some current ideas. For more on this topic, visit the Moral Machines blog, maintained by authors Wendell Wallach and Colin Allen.

Published by Rosalind on 25 Nov 2008

Ocean Acidity Increasing Rapidly

Many organisms inhabit the rocky and sandy intertidal areas of the Pacific Ocean

Many organisms - including barnacles and mussels - inhabit the rocky and sandy intertidal areas of the Pacific Ocean in the Northwest.Â

A study of the Pacific Ocean waters off the coast of Tatoosh Island (Washington State) measured water pH, salinity and temperature every half-hour for eight years. Results were dramatic and showed that the acidity was rising sharply, shown by a fast decline in ocean pH. The study also showed that the local organisms, particularly the Californian mussel, were quite sensitive to CO2 changes. You can read about it here: Marine Life faces ‘Acid Threat’.

Related Question: What is pH?

One pH definition is: “a logarithmic scale, from 1 to 14, used to describe the acidity or alkalinity of a solution.” Acid things taste tart or sour, like lemons. Alkaline (or basic) things are slippery, like soap. Blood in the human body should be close to 7.4 on the pH scale and is slightly basic. Dissolving carbon dioxide in water makes it more acidic. A pH level of less than 7 indicates an acidic solution while a pH greater than 7 indicates an alkaline solution. 7–which is neutral (neither acidic or basic) is the pH level of distilled water. pH stands for “potential Hydrogen.”

On a logarithmic scale, each increase of one unit–from five to six, for example–represents ten times greater or less. So something that has a pH of 1 is ten times more acidic that something with a pH of 2 (or ten times less basic).

Another logarithmic scale that is used in science is the Richter scale, used to measure the strength of earthquakes. On the Richter scale, an earthquake measuring 5 releases ten times the energy of an earthquakes measuring 4; an earthquake measuring 6 releases 100 (ten times ten) times the energy of an earthquake measuring 4.

The short version is: remember that the difference between a pH of 4 and a pH of 3 is much more than just one unit. So pH 3 is very much more acidic than pH 4, because it is on a logarithmic scale!

Dictionary Definition:

pH is the degree of acidity or alkalinity of a solution; it is the logarithm of the reciprocal of the hydrogen-ion concentration in gram equivalents per liter of solution (Ex: .0000001 gram atom of hydrogen ion per liter yields a numeric reciprocal of ten million, the log of ten million equals 7, therefore 7 is the pH): a pH of 7, the value for pure distilled water, is regarded as neutral; pH values from 7 to 0 indicate increasing acidity and from 7 to 14 indicate increasing alkalinity (from

Published by Rosalind on 25 Nov 2008

It’s Always Good to have a Sense of Humor


These great outfits, made entirely of recycled materials, prepare the wearer to meet various challenges: extreme storms, flooding, insects, germs and a smaller carbon footprint.torms,

These great outfits, made entirely of recycled materials, prepare the wearer to meet various challenges: extreme storms, flooding, insects, epidemics and a smaller carbon footprint.

At “Meeting the Climate Challenge: Taking Action in the Hudson Valley” — a recent conference sponsored by the Hudson River Watershed Alliance and Mohonk Consultations — these useful outfits were presented in a short (and hilarious) fashion show.

In the photo you can see (starting from the left) 1. the Un-Brella Rain Collector with backpack storage unit 2. the Anti-Germ Outfit with layered latex gloves 3. the Bug Zapper dress with wind-powered beanie 4) the Insect-net Ensemble 5) the Flood-floatation Dress with plastics and inner-tube belt 6) the Lightning Attractor with rechargeable batteries 7) the All-Weather Tarp Dress. All were designed by Jessica Williams.

Published by Rosalind on 24 Nov 2008

Brain Boggling

Scientists have been working for a long time on understanding the human brain. Fortunately, they’ve made a lot of progress using various imaging techniques. One problem has been how to study the human brain without hurting people — and one answer has been animal studies. Rats are popular for this — even though you might not think your brain has anything in common with a rat’s! Rats are mammals like us, and studying their brains has been very helpful for brain researchers. Now researchers are working on a 3D virtual atlas of the rat’s brain, so that scientists can put together everything they already know and guide future research. Hear about it here: New Program Maps Virtual Rat Brain In 3D : NPR.
Scientists plan to work on an atlas of the human brain as well. That will be fascinating and may lead to new insights about human biology and behavior. (But can they help me find my car keys?)

Published by Diana on 21 Nov 2008

More Science Needed

Sometimes I read an occasional article saying that science has solved all the big questions, and then I read an article like this one: Invasive Plants in Galapagos May Really Be Native.

Science isn’t really that easy. The Galapagos have been studied in detail since Charles Darwin did his studies on finches there in the 1830s (on one of the first global scientific studies). The islands aren’t that big. And it’s only now that scientists are doing the pollen studies on what plants have been there over history. And those pollen studies are showing that they need to do more research.

What does this have to do with climate change? Well, one key part of studying the current changes in our climate is studying past climates. One way to do that is to look at what plants were found where in the past. For example, tropical trees like palms generally indicate a warmer local climate. So scientists need an accurate picture of what plants lived in what parts of the globe THEN and NOW so they can study climate change.

Published by Diana on 18 Nov 2008

President-elect Obama Refuses to Back Down

President-elect Barack Obama, in strongly-worded remarks to a gathering of governors and foreign officials on Tuesday, said he had no intention of softening or delaying his aggressive targets for reducing emissions that cause the warming of the planet. 

In this article Obama Affirms Climate Change Goals President-elect Obama reiterated that it is urgent:

“Delay is no longer an option. Denial is no longer an acceptable response.”

with regard to climate change and new energy technologies.

Published by Diana on 18 Nov 2008

Unintended Consequences

The Mountain Pine Beetle, a particularly nasty pest of lodgepole pines, is devastating forests throughout the west. Why? Well, buried in this article: Bark Beetles Kill Millions of Acres of Trees in West is a tiny little mention of ONE of the many causes: milder winters.

Scientists have said that the beetles are only destroyed by winter temperatures of 30 to 40 degrees below zero (Celsius)–and it hasn’t been that cold in the winter for many years in most of the west.

Published by Diana on 16 Nov 2008

Al Gore Writes About Climate Change

In a long and thought-provoking article in the New York Times last Sunday (November 9th, 2008), Al Gore wrote this about the election of Barack Obama:

THE inspiring and transformative choice by the American people to elect Barack Obama as our 44th president lays the foundation for another fateful choice that he — and we — must make this January to begin an emergency rescue of human civilization from the imminent and rapidly growing threat posed by the climate crisis.

and he went on to say that:

Economists across the spectrum — including Martin Feldstein and Lawrence Summers — agree that large and rapid investments in a jobs-intensive infrastructure initiative is the best way to revive our economy in a quick and sustainable way.

In short, Al Gore–and many others–propose that the United States create a massive investment in sustainable energy technology–solar, wind, water, and more–as a way of revitalizing our American economy, much as the switch to information technology changed the American economy in the 1980s and 1990s.

The full article can be found here: The Climate for Change.

Published by Rosalind on 12 Nov 2008

Did Fall Come Later This Year?

                                                     Fall Color 2008 — Adirondack Mountains

Every year everyone in the Northeast United States tries to forecast when the amazing fall leaves will reach their peak color. The newspapers publish maps showing the color changes, and the tourists and local folks drive through the woods enjoying the show. In 2008, in the Catskill and Adirondack Mountains of New York, local observers agreed that fall leaf colors continued to peak later than they did in the past. Twenty years ago, the Columbus Day Weekend — around October 12th — was considered the average peak color in the Catskills. In the last few years, fall leaf color has peaked towards the end of October.

Local scientists have documented changes in the local climate that seem to provide clues to that change. Climate monitoring at the Mohonk Lake Cooperative Weather Station (reported by the Mohonk Preserve’s Daniel Smiley Research Center) shows that the average temperature has risen 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit over the last 112 years. The local growing season is now an average of ten days longer, too. If these changes continue, peak leaf color in the Catskill Mountains may become a November event — and the types of trees in our forests may also be affected by the new growing conditions.

Published by Rosalind on 09 Nov 2008

The Ozone Hole

NASA Ozone Hole September 2008
NASA Image of Ozone Hole, September 2008


In September, when cold temperatures and sunlight begin to appear over the Antarctic horizon and start to drive chemical reactions that destroy ozone, the yearly hole in earth’s ozone layer is at its biggest. An important chemical in these reactions is chlorine, which comes from manmade chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). By October, the ozone-destroying chemical reactions stop. From October to December, the ozone depleted region moves south, so there’s less atmospheric ozone over parts of the USA. NASA’s satellite data shows that this year the ozone hole grew to its largest size on Sept. 13, reaching a maximum area extent of 9.7 million square miles. That’s larger than the area of North America.
NASA scientists say that this size is fairly similar to the sizes observed over the last decade. But it is still huge, particularly when you consider that the ozone hole didn’t exist at all until the 1970’s. Some scientists think that the ozone hole will slowly shrink now that CFC’s are banned by an international treaty. The ozone hole doesn’t appear to be a cause of climate change — instead the hole is caused by some of the same atmospheric gases that cause global climate change. If the hole is closed, some scientists think it will help reduce the warming of Antarctica, so it’s all connected! You can read about the study here:  Mending Ozone Hole

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