Stories tagged Physical Science

Apr
20
2010

Physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson said,

"If you're scientifically literate, the world looks very different to you. And that understanding empowers you."

(You can hear Mr. Tyson "sing" this line in the Symphony of Science/Poetry of Reality video below.)

Earthquake: Are you going to listen to the guy who tells you this happened because of a ghost? A pact with the Devil? Because God is angry with unveiled and unchaste women? No, thanks. My money's on the well-understood science of plate tectonics, and I'll be looking to the science peeps for the solutions, too.
Earthquake: Are you going to listen to the guy who tells you this happened because of a ghost? A pact with the Devil? Because God is angry with unveiled and unchaste women? No, thanks. My money's on the well-understood science of plate tectonics, and I'll be looking to the science peeps for the solutions, too.Courtesy United Nations Development Programme

I've been thinking about that idea a lot today after hearing two stories:

  1. In the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake, Protestants, Catholics, and practitioners of Voodoo are trying to increase followers by placing blame for the quake on supernatural causes. Some blame it on Voodoo, claiming that the earthquake is the price for a centuries old covenant made on the eve of the Haitian revolution. Others say Voodoo isn't at fault, but the consequence of not properly burying Jean-Jacques Dessalines, a hero of the Haitian revolution. (And you don't have to be living in Haiti to believe some of this stuff -- just listen to Pat Robertson).
  2. And in Iran, one of the most earthquake-prone places on Earth, Senior Cleric Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi was recently quoted saying, "Many women who do not dress modestly ... lead young men astray, corrupt their chastity and spread adultery in society, which (consequently) increases earthquakes. ... What can we do to avoid being buried under the rubble? ... There is no other solution but to take refuge in religion and to adapt our lives to Islam's moral codes."

Huh?

The cause of the Haitian earthquake is clear--100% explainable without having to invoke pacts with the Devil or martyr's ghosts. Same in Iran -- geologic activity in the area will continue whether or not women are veiled and chaste.

The solution is not "to take refuge in religion." The wrangling over unverifiable, supernatural causes for things diverts very needed resources and attention from real world solutions to very urgent problems.

The solution is to take refuge in science. Michael Shermer (yup, he "sings") says,

"Science is the best tool ever devised for understanding how the world works."

The Earth hasn't changed. People have. We're seeing quake activity with big consequences because there are more of us than ever before, many, many of us live in developing countries where large populations live in dense communities with lax building codes, and communications technology means that we know what has happened, not because we're paying a geological price for not living our lives correctly.

So what do we do? We innovate. We devise new and better monitoring and warning systems. We develop building techniques that are both locally appropriate and safer in the event of a quake. We teach people how to protect themselves in an emergency and how to react afterwards.

Richard Dawkins (my current nerd crush; you can watch him "sing" in the video, too.) said,

"Science replaces private prejudice with publicly verifiable evidence."

How can you not get behind an idea like that?

Apr
18
2010

Why robotics is important

Our first National Robotics Week (April 10 - April 18) ends today. Created by congress just last month, the National Robotics Week celebrations will help inspire students of all ages to pursue careers in robotics and other STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) related fields.

During National Robotics Week, a week-long series of events and activities is aimed at increasing public awareness of the growing importance of “robo-technology” and the tremendous social and cultural impact that it will have on the future of the United States. NatRoboticsWk.org/about

How robotics effects our society

This blog, sciencebuzz.org, has dozens of entries about how robotics are used in healthcare, manufacturing, transportation, and national defense.

Check out these links to robotics events

Mar
18
2010

If you're visiting the Science Museum of Minnesota, look out the windows from the Mississippi River Gallery on level 5. If you're in downtown St. Paul, stop by the museum and look at the river from the overlook on Kellogg Plaza. (City officials are asking folks not to flock to areas where barriers are going up - especially Harriet Island - but the view from in or around the museum is spectacular and safe.)

Kate's photos, 3/18 (3): Looks peaceful, doesn't it? Still, the city is warning people to stay off of the river, out of the low-lying parks, and away from Harriet Island and Water Street.
Kate's photos, 3/18 (3): Looks peaceful, doesn't it? Still, the city is warning people to stay off of the river, out of the low-lying parks, and away from Harriet Island and Water Street.Courtesy Kate Hintz

The Mississippi is going up FAST today, and forecasters expect that the river will officially reach "flood stage" by early this afternoon. (It's 10:45am, and the river's at 11.67'. It's risen a foot and a half in the last 24 hours, should reach 12' ("action stage") pretty soon, and 14' ("flood stage") by late today.

Kate's photos, 3/18 (2): Look across the river to the floodwall: that's the high-water mark for the 1965 flood, the highest in recorded history. That year, the river crested here in downtown St. Paul at 26.01' and marked the end for the communities then down on the river flats.
Kate's photos, 3/18 (2): Look across the river to the floodwall: that's the high-water mark for the 1965 flood, the highest in recorded history. That year, the river crested here in downtown St. Paul at 26.01' and marked the end for the communities then down on the river flats.Courtesy Kate Hintz

Kate's photos, 3/18 (1): Shepard/Warner roads will close from Chestnut Street to US 61 starting Saturday morning, and could remain closed for weeks. Take your river sightseeing drive/bike ride/walk before then!
Kate's photos, 3/18 (1): Shepard/Warner roads will close from Chestnut Street to US 61 starting Saturday morning, and could remain closed for weeks. Take your river sightseeing drive/bike ride/walk before then!Courtesy Kate Hintz

So what's going on around the river?

  • The city has closed all city boat launches and temporarily banned all recreational boating within the city limits.
  • Water Street will be entirely closed, starting this afternoon.
  • Hidden Falls and Lilydale regional parks are closed.
  • Flood barriers are going up at the St. Paul downtown airport and at Harriet Island.
  • Harriet Island will close once the river reaches 17'.
  • Warner/Shepard Roads will be closed from Chestnut Street to US 61 starting Saturday morning in preparation for the construction of a temporary levee that could withstand river levels to 26'. These roads could be closed for weeks, depending on the extent of the flooding.

Here's the latest hydrology graph:
3/18 hydrology graph, 10:15am
3/18 hydrology graph, 10:15amCourtesy USGS

Check out our full feature on the 2010 Mississippi River flooding.

Mar
16
2010

All day, up in the Mississippi River Gallery, people have been stopping to look out the window and watch the river.

Here's how the US Geological Survey sees it:
Mississippi River, actual vs. forecast, 3/16/10, 1pm
Mississippi River, actual vs. forecast, 3/16/10, 1pmCourtesy USGS

The river's rising, but not as fast as yesterday. And yesterday's rise outpaced predictions by almost a foot, but today the rise matches the predicted curve almost exactly.

So what are folks seeing out the window? Take a look.

Also check out our full feature on the 2010 Mississippi River flooding.

Watch the steps: They're a good benchmark.
Watch the steps: They're a good benchmark.Courtesy Liza Pryor

Raspberry Island: Still high and dry
Raspberry Island: Still high and dryCourtesy Liza Pryor

Looking upstream: You're still looking at Harriet Island. But low-lying areas of Lilydale (upstream, south side of the river) get inundated when the river reaches 14 feet or so. Right now, that's predicted to happen sometime after 7pm on Sunday, 3/21.
Looking upstream: You're still looking at Harriet Island. But low-lying areas of Lilydale (upstream, south side of the river) get inundated when the river reaches 14 feet or so. Right now, that's predicted to happen sometime after 7pm on Sunday, 3/21.Courtesy Liza Pryor

Mar
12
2010

Science Friday logo
Science Friday logo
Courtesy Science Friday
It's Friday, so it's time for a new Science Friday video. This week,

"What is the future of sustainable architecture? Washington University's Tyson Living Learning Center in Eureka, MO, achieves the Living Building Challenge--a set of green guidelines that measure a building based on its performance. The building's architect Dan Hellmuth, of Hellmuth & Bicknese Architects in St. Louis, and Kevin Smith, associate director of Tyson Research Center, point out some of the Center's greenest features."
Jan
24
2010

In a world gridlocked with cars and gas-guzzling SUVs how can we meet our fuel needs?

According to David Tilman and other researchers at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment (IonE), biofuels, or fuels made from plant materials, are possible substitutes for fossil fuels like gasoline and diesel. In a July 2009 Science article, scientists identify five sources that can produce large amounts of biofuels without destroying natural habitat or using land needed to raise crops and cattle for food.

“We need to transition away from using food for biofuels toward more sustainable feedstocks that can be produced with much less impact on the environment.” Jason Hill, University of Minnesota

One Man’s Trash is Another Man’s TreasureCrop waste, plants grown on abandoned land, and trash, are all possible sources of biofuels.
Crop waste, plants grown on abandoned land, and trash, are all possible sources of biofuels.Courtesy University of California Berkeley News

Jan
14
2010

WaveLengths, the award-winning public television program from Arizona Public Media updates viewers on what was once the most talked-about experiment in the world--the Biosphere 2 in Oracle, Arizona.

Biosphere 2: New TV program takes you inside Biosphere 2.
Biosphere 2: New TV program takes you inside Biosphere 2.Courtesy Biosphere 2

"WaveLengths: Planet in a Bottle" revisits the famous life sciences laboratory to learn about the research currently being conducted inside, and exactly how it can help find answers to environmental questions arising in the new millennium. This new episode of WaveLengths includes research and work televised for the very first time.

(See a preview here.)

"WaveLengths: Planet in a Bottle" premieres Monday, January 18 at 6:30pm on PBS-HD Channel 6.

Segments include:
  • Two years and 20 minutes: Jayne Poynter is one of eight "Biospherians" who were sealed inside the artificial environment for a little over two years. Poynter talks about the challenges the team faced as they grew their own food and recycled their air and water within the immense greenhouse. The problems with living extensively in a sealed environment, says Poynter, were not all environment-related.
  • Biosphere 2's future: The management of this unique structure and its surrounding campus was assumed by The University of Arizona in 2007 now scientists from Arizona and around the world use this remarkable facility to find solutions for understanding climate change and other global problems that threaten the planet. WaveLengths Host Dr. Vicki Chandler takes a walk with Biosphere 2 Director Travis Huxman to talk about the relevancy of the new research going on in the largest sealed facility on Earth.
  • High tech rainforest: How are plants and forests responding to the changing environmental conditions on Earth? Dr. Kolbe Jardine is one researcher using a hi-tech chemistry lab in conjunction with Biosphere 2's rainforest biome to learn more about plant interactions.
  • Critical ocean viruses: The invisible life of the ocean--its microbes--is as critical to other ocean life as plants and trees are to the land. The artificial ocean of Biosphere 2 is now helping scientists discover what kind of impact climate change can have on the ocean's microbial life. Researcher Matt Sullivan is focusing on this invisible life to help us better understand the crucial role it plays in ocean productivity, and the overall health of our planet.
  • Climate change and vegetation shifts: Some regions in North America are seeing rapid vegetation transformations because of invasive species. Here in the Southwest, the invasion of the non-native bufflegrass could change our desert landscape forever, and a better understanding of why these changes are taking place in relation to climate change is happening inside Biosphere 2.
Jan
11
2010

Radioactive Peace: With all countries taking from a nuclear fuel bank, no one country will have to enrich its own uranium.
Radioactive Peace: With all countries taking from a nuclear fuel bank, no one country will have to enrich its own uranium.Courtesy kso
Talk of nuclear power has been brought back into the spotlight, especially after the discovery of Iran’s uranium enrichment plant last September. A solution to the debate about whether countries should even have the capability of enriching uranium (the process required for attaining both nuclear energy and nuclear weapons) was posed more than 50 years ago by President Eisenhower. Eisenhower suggested that various countries should allocate uranium from their stockpiles for peaceful pursuits (i.e. nuclear energy). At the time it wasn’t received very well, but a recent BBC article reported that this vision has been renewed. As of November of last year, the United Nation’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) successfully negotiated with Russia to store 120 tonnes of nuclear fuel in a plant in Angarsk (a city in the south central-ish part of Russia). In 2010, similar arrangements are said to be made with Kazakhstan. The idea is to get developing countries that are thinking about using nuclear energy in the future to join in this program, eliminating their need to enrich their own uranium.

All of this got me thinking about how nuclear energy actually works. It turns out that nuclear power plants are not that different from regular coal-burning power plants. Both plants heat water to produce pressurized steam. This steam then drives a turbine, which spins a generator to produce electricity. The only difference between the plants is how the water is heated. Coal-burning plants…well, burn coal (fossil fuels) to produce the heat, while nuclear plants rely on nuclear fission. This is where nuclear power gets really cool!

So atoms are made up of protons, neutrons, and electrons; protons are positively charged, neutrons carry no charge, and electrons are negatively charged. Atoms have an equal number of protons and electrons (making the atom, itself, electrically neutral), but the number of neutrons can vary. Atoms of the same element with a different number of neutrons are called isotopes. The isotope of uranium that is needed for nuclear fission, and therefore, nuclear energy, is Uranium-235. This isotope is unique because it can undergo induced fission, which means its nucleus can be forced to split. This happens when a free neutron runs into the nucleus of U-235. Nuclear fission
Nuclear fissionCourtesy wondigama
U-235 absorbs the neutron, becomes unstable, and breaks into two new nuclei. In the process, two or three neutrons are also thrown out. All of this happens in a matter of picoseconds (0.000000000001 seconds)! The neutrons that are released in this reaction can then go and collide with other on-looking U-235 atoms, causing a huge chain reaction (much like this). The amount of energy released when this happens is incredible- a pound of highly enriched uranium has about the same energy as a million gallons of gasoline. This energy comes from the fact that the products of the fission (the two resulting nuclei and the neutrons that fly off), together, don’t weigh as much as the original U-235 atom. This weight difference is converted directly into energy. It’s this energy that is used to heat the water that creates the steam, which turns the turbine that spins the generator, that produces power in the nuclear reactor that Jack built.

On the plus side, with nuclear power there wouldn’t be a reliance on fossil fuels. Nuclear power plants are cleaner because they don’t emit as much carbon dioxide as traditional coal-burning and natural gas plants. However, there are some downsides as well. Mining uranium is not a clean process, transporting nuclear fuel creates a risk of radioactive contamination, and then there’s the whole issue with what to do with the still-dangerous nuclear waste once the fuel has been used up.

Whether or not we should increase our nuclear power program is still debatable, but one thing I do know is that the science behind it is fascinating!