Posts tagged “science”

Susanna Hertrich's Risk Perception Art

Susanna Hertrich:

A reflection on common fears in societies where anxieties have become a lifestyle choice (2010 - ongoing).

Regarding the piece above:

Public dread and actual deaths caused by most common sources of energy. Based on a longterm study by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

via @darbyjack

Ye Olde Smog Meringue

image from

Nicola Twilley, writing at

After running around New York City in order to source our precursor ingredients (a huge thanks to Kent Kirshenbaum, chemistry professor at NYU and co-founder of the Experimental Cuising Collective), we spent Thursday afternoon and evening in the kitchens of Baz Bagel (excellent bagels, amazing ramp cream cheese, and truly lovely people) assembling the cart, mixing different chemical precursors, and then “baking” them under UV light to form a London peasouper, a 1950s Los Angeles photochemical smog, and a present-day air-quality event in Atlanta.

We chose these three places and times to showcase three of the classic “types” that atmospheric scientists use to characterize smogs: 1950s London was a sulfur- and particulate-heavy fog, whereas 1950s Los Angeles was a photochemical smog created by the reactions between sunlight, NOx, and partially combusted hydrocarbons. Present-day Beijing often experiences London-style atmospheric conditions, whereas Mexico City’s smog is in the Angeleno style.

Meanwhile, at its worst, Atlanta’s atmosphere is similar in composition to that of Los Angeles, but with the addition of biogenic emissions. An estimated ten percent of emissions in Atlanta are from a class of chemicals known as terpenes, from organic sources such as pine trees and decaying green matter. We had also hoped to create a Central Valley smog as well, but time got the better of us.

Each city’s different precursor emissions and weather conditions produce a different kind of smog, with distinct chemical characteristics—and a unique flavour.

Steven Levy: "The Invention of the Perfect Cup of Coffee"

Photo by Jason Henry

A short and fun interview between Steven Levy and Alan Adler, inventor of the Aerobie and the Aeropress.


So I recently ventured to the small suite towards the back of a tiny industrial complex near 101 in Palo Alto, the home of the Aerobie company and its unsung master maker, Alan Adler. At 75, he is still at it, the canonical independent inventor, digging in file drawers for blueprints, shuffling to a storage space to locate an early version of his long-flying disk, lining up AeroPress prototypes like the iconic illustration of Darwin’s vision of the evolution of man. Across the room is his granddaughter, who does his PR. If the Maker Movement needs someone to put on its postage stamp, Adler would be perfect.

Levy & Adler:

You didn’t go to college?

No, but but I taught college. I taught at Stanford for many years. I taught a course in sensors and also mentored mechanical engineering students and I still lecture there.

I certainly had the ability [as a student] but I didn’t always have the discipline to do all the work. I recall one incident in plane geometry class where I submitted a very unusual proof and the teacher asked me to do the proof on the blackboard for the rest of the class, which I did. And she looked sort of stunned. I realized afterward that she thought that my father must have done that proof, which he couldn’t do actually. My grades were about average. I was eager to get out and earn a living and be on my own.

BBC's Your life on earth

Put in a few facts about yourself — birthdate, gender and heights — and get an assortment of facts about how the world has changed since your arrival.

Some of mine:

  • Population has increased by ~2.8 billion; life expectancy is 8 years longer than when I was born
  • BBC projects Oil and Coal will run out by the time I’m 80. They estimate gas supplies will continue beyond my life, but not my children’s.

If you were born 4 years ago:

  • Population has increased ~327 million — 10 million more than the US!
  • While you’re on average (in the US) 3.3 ft tall, a coastal redwood would have grown ~5ft.

Kind of fun. I’d be interested to know a bit more about their data projections. They do offer a little bit of information, at least, about where the data came from.

via kottke

Introducing HAPIT

I’ve lead recent efforts to create a web-based tool to estimate the impacts of household air pollution interventions (like stoves, gas dissemination, etc) using methods based on what’s known about household air pollution and its contribution to the Global Burden of Disease. The project began as an Excel-based spreadsheet before moving to the web leveraging Shiny, R, and a fair amount of javascript. From the site:

HAPIT estimates and compares health benefits attributable to stove and/or fuel programs that reduce exposure to household air pollution (HAP) resulting from solid fuel use in traditional stoves in developing countries. HAPIT allows users to customize two scenarios based on locally gathered information relevant to their intervention, which is the recommended approach. This will normally require preliminary field work at the dissemination site to demonstrate pollution exposures before and after the intervention in a representative sample of households. If no local information is available, however, HAPIT contains conservative default values for four broad classes of household energy interventions based on the available literature — liquid fuels, chimney stoves, rocket stoves, and advanced combustion stoves. As each country’s health and HAP situation is different, HAPIT currently contains the background data necessary to conduct the analysis in 55 countries — those with more than 50% of households using solid fuels for cooking and China, which has a lower percentage of households using solid fuels for cooking, but a high number in absolute terms. See the drop down list on the left and the Info tab for more details.

HAPIT also estimates program cost-effectiveness in US dollars per averted DALY (disability-adjusted life year) based on the World Health Organization’s CHOICE methodology (see Info tab for more detail). It takes a financial accounting approach in that it 1) does not take into account the household costs such as fuel and health expenses or time spent cooking or acquiring fuel and 2) assumes that programs are covering the cost of fuel-based interventions (such as annual LPG costs per household). For custom scenarios, users can adjust the per-household maintenance or fuel cost based on the characteristics of their programs. All program costs should be entered in current US dollars.

There are a number of nice features of HAPIT, but one I’m particularly fond of is the customized, session-based pdf generated by clicking “Download Report.” HAPIT’s a work in progress and will continue to evolve in the coming months.

Citizen Science: Long Island Weather Observer

NY Times story about Richard Hendrickson:

Twice a day, every day, he has recorded the temperature, precipitation and wind from the same area of Bridgehampton. He has been at it through 14 presidencies, 13 New York governorships and 14 mayoralties in that city 96 miles away. The Weather Service says he has taken more than 150,000 individual readings.

His is the longest continuous streak in the history of the Weather Service, which has 8,700 such volunteers nationwide, including 55 in the New York area. The agency says he is the first to serve for more than eight decades. And to answer the obvious question, yes, he has been known to take the occasional vacation. In his 20s, he went to New Zealand — “as far away as you can get,” he said. His mother filled in at the weather station.

Mr. Hendrickson’s daily diary, kept since Jan. 1, 1931, records weather data and family matters. The Weather Service recognized Mr. Hendrickson last month with an award named for him. He said he did not realize until after a ceremony in Upton that he was getting the Richard G. Hendrickson Award, and he sounded embarrassed that the meteorologists had made such a fuss. He did not mention that notables like Benjamin Franklin and George Washington had kept weather records or that Thomas Jefferson had done so from 1776 to 1816 — less than half as long as he has.

Incredible. He started when he was 17. He’s 101 now. 101.

Hard to imagine today, when we expect these things to occur on their own, without intervention. I like this better. Routine thoughtfulness.

The Archdruid Report & Climate Clarity

John Michael Greer, communicating articulately about perturbations to complex systems (read: climate) at The Archdruid Report:

The next time you fill a bathtub, once you’ve turned off the tap, wait until the water is still. Slip your hand into the water, slowly and gently, so that you make as little disturbance in the water as possible. Then move your hand through the water about as fast as a snail moves, and watch and feel how the water adapts to the movement, flowing gently around your hand. .

Once you’ve gotten a clear sense of that, gradually increase the speed with which your hand is moving. After you pass a certain threshold of speed, the movements of the water will take the form of visible waves—a bow wave in front of your hand, a wake behind it in which water rises and falls rhythmically, and wave patterns extending out to the edges of the tub. The faster you move your hand, the larger the waves become, and the more visible the interference patterns as they collide with one another.

Keep on increasing the speed of your hand. You’ll pass a second threshold, and the rhythm of the waves will disintegrate into turbulence: the water will churn, splash, and spray around your hand, and chaotic surges of water will lurch up and down the sides of the tub. If you keep it up, you can get a fair fraction of the bathwater on your bathroom floor, but this isn’t required for the experiment! Once you’ve got a good sense of the difference between the turbulence above the second threshold and the oscillations below it, take your hand out of the water, and watch what happens: the turbulence subsides into wave patterns, the waves shrink, and finally—after some minutes—you have still water again.

This same sequence of responses can be traced in every complex system, governing its response to every kind of disturbance in its surroundings…

… Once things begin to oscillate, veering outside usual conditions in both directions, that’s a sign that the limits to resilience are coming into sight, with the possibility of chaotic variability in the planetary climate as a whole waiting not far beyond that. We can fine-tune the warning signals a good deal by remembering that every system is made up of subsystems, and those of sub-subsystems, and as a general rule of thumb, the smaller the system, the more readily it moves from local adjustment to oscillation to turbulence in response to rising levels of disturbance.

Science Friday | Beer Science: Crafting the Perfect Pint

Oregon has 171 breweries operating out of 70 different cities, and Portland boasts more breweries per capita than any other city in the country. Two Oregon brew experts—Leon Fyfe, a microbiologist with the Craft Brew Alliance, and Ben Tilley, owner of Agrarian Ales—pour over the science of craft brewing, discussing how yeast, hops, malt, and water come together to create the perfect pint.

Audio’s not live yet… but looking forward to it.

Nature: Deadly Dinners

A decent journalistic piece in Nature about household energy use and health. My favorite bit, from the one-two punch of Kirk Smith & Kalpana Balakrishnan:

After decades of battling to get people to use improved cooking-stoves, many researchers worry that such devices will never win over consumers and thus never achieve the desired health and climate gains. “My bottom line is that nothing works,” Smith says. “The only thing we know that’s ever worked is gas and electric.”

Balakrishnan makes a moral argument against improved cooking stoves, which still produce harmful amounts of pollutants compared with LPG or electric ones, powered by remote energy plants that comonly use fossil fuels. “Are you justified in saying that it’s OK to be just a little bit better?” she asks. “If it’s OK for 40% of the population to use fossil fuels, then why is not OK for the other 60% of the population? How can we have dual standards?”

Climate Change: If you see something, say something

Powerful opinion piece by Michael E. Mann in the NYT:

If scientists choose not to engage in the public debate, we leave a vacuum that will be filled by those whose agenda is one of short-term self-interest. There is a great cost to society if scientists fail to participate in the larger conversation — if we do not do all we can to ensure that the policy debate is informed by an honest assessment of the risks. In fact, it would be an abrogation of our responsibility to society if we remained quiet in the face of such a grave threat.

This is hardly a radical position. Our Department of Homeland Security has urged citizens to report anything dangerous they witness: “If you see something, say something.” We scientists are citizens, too, and, in climate change, we see a clear and present danger. The public is beginning to see the danger, too — Midwestern farmers struggling with drought, more damaging wildfires out West, and withering record summer heat across the country — while wondering about possible linkages between rapid Arctic warming and strange weather patterns, like the recent outbreak of Arctic air across much of the United States.

How will history judge us if we watch the threat unfold before our eyes, but fail to communicate the urgency of acting to avert potential disaster? How would I explain to the future children of my 8-year-old daughter that their grandfather saw the threat, but didn’t speak up in time?

Those are the stakes.

Bill Murray's Ask Me Anything on Reddit

As with all things Bill Murray, this is a gem. My favorite question and answer is the top one in the thread (for now):

Q. If you could go back in time and have a conversation with one person, who would it be and why? (from anniedog03)

A. That’s a grand question, golly.

I kind of like scientists, in a funny way. Albert Einstein was a pretty cool guy. The thing about Einstein was that he was a theoretical physicist, so they were all theories. He was just a smart guy. I’m kind of interested in genetics though. I think I would have liked to have met Gregor Mendel.

Because he was a monk who just sort of figured this stuff out on his own. That’s a higher mind, that’s a mind that’s connected. They have a vision, and they just sort of see it because they are so connected intellectually and mechanically and spiritually, they can access a higher mind. Mendel was a guy so long ago that I don’t necessarily know very much about him, but I know that Einstein did his work in the mountains in Switzerland. I think the altitude had an effect on the way they spoke and thought.

But I would like to know about Mendel, because i remember going to the Philippines and thinking “this is like Mendel’s garden” because it had been invaded by so many different countries over the years, and you could see the children shared the genetic traits of all their invaders over the years, and it made for this beautiful varietal garden.


Venus, Mars, the Earth and Moon from Saturn

NASA and JPL continue to release some incredible images. Click the image to see a large version in a new window; click here to see huge ones over at NASA.

Humbling and magical.

On July 19, 2013, in an event celebrated the world over, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft slipped into Saturn’s shadow and turned to image the planet, seven of its moons, its inner rings — and, in the background, our home planet, Earth.

With the sun’s powerful and potentially damaging rays eclipsed by Saturn itself, Cassini’s onboard cameras were able to take advantage of this unique viewing geometry. They acquired a panoramic mosaic of the Saturn system that allows scientists to see details in the rings and throughout the system as they are backlit by the sun. This mosaic is special as it marks the third time our home planet was imaged from the outer solar system; the second time it was imaged by Cassini from Saturn’s orbit; and the first time ever that inhabitants of Earth were made aware in advance that their photo would be taken from such a great distance.

With both Cassini’s wide-angle and narrow-angle cameras aimed at Saturn, Cassini was able to capture 323 images in just over four hours. This final mosaic uses 141 of those wide-angle images. Images taken using the red, green and blue spectral filters of the wide-angle camera were combined and mosaicked together to create this natural-color view. A brightened version with contrast and color enhanced (Figure 1), a version with just the planets annotated (Figure 2), and an annotated version (Figure 3) are shown above.

This image spans about 404,880 miles (651,591 kilometers) across.

Beauty of Mathematics

Pretty awesome little video from a French video production and graphic design firm. Not entirely sure about the veracity of the math or the visualizations… but that’s perhaps missing the forest for the trees.

Best viewed fullscreen.

via Colossal

Living on Earth: Bridging Faith and Reason

Arri Eisen, a close friend, mentor, and Professor of Pedagogy at Emory University, was recently featured on Living on Earth along with two of his most unique students — Lodoe Sangpo and Thabkhe Thabkhe, Tibetan Buddhist monks learning and doing science and taking courses. Check out the interview below.

Laboratory and Field Evaluation of the Particle and Temperature Sensor (PATS+) System: A Portable, Robust, and Low-cost Platform for Monitoring Combustion-related Household Air Pollution

Pillarisetti A, Holstius D, Johnson M, Allen T, Canuz E, Charron D, Pennise D, Seto E, Smith KR. Laboratory and Field Evaluation of the Particle and Temperature Sensor (PATS+) System: A Portable, Robust, and Low-cost Platform for Monitoring Combustion-related Household Air Pollution . American Association for Aerosol Research, 32nd Annual Conference. Portland, Oregon: October 2, 2013.

Incredible Photos of Mars

The Verge highlighted some amazing photos from NASA and University of Arizona’s HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment). From the HiRISE FAQ page:

HiRISE returns images of the Martian surface with higher resolution than ever seen before from an orbiter. This means we can see extraordinary detail in all kinds of surface features. Scientists all over the world are already using these images to understand many previously-unexplained phenomena on the Red Planet. We might also discover brand new types of features never seen before! The stereo and color capabilities will also allow us to explore Mars in 3D, and with compositional information. The ultra high resolution also makes HiRISE the perfect tool for investigating the safety of future landing sites for other missions, such as the Phoenix lander or the Mars Science Laboratory. We’ve also done some searching for past Mars landers, both successful and not. But even without the higher resolution and added capabilities, additional cameras in Mars orbit are always valuable for imaging new terrains on Mars, and for monitoring the dynamic surface and atmosphere for activity and changes.

A few more favorites:

The Briefcase

Kevin Delaney, a high school teacher at Wayland High School, notices a briefcase in his department’s storage room. He’s seen it before, opened it before, but hasn’t really explored its contents — he doesn’t know the treasure within.

After a quick scan, we realized that we had in our hands the astonishing personal collection of Lt. Col. Martin W. Joyce (1899-1962), the 46 year old Army officer who was appointed commanding officer of Dachau Concentration Camp just days after its liberation in late April, 1945. Among the 250 original documents are personal letters, an 85 page scrapbook, his military files, Dachau documents, and a photo album presented to him by Yugoslavian survivors, who credit Joyce and the Americans with saving the lives of some 32,000 survivors. It’s clad in blue and gray striped fabric of prison clothing.

Boston Magazine elaborated a bit on the papers and on Joyce:

Inside were the assorted papers—letters, military records, photos—left behind by a man named Martin W. Joyce, a long-since deceased West Roxbury resident who began his military career as an infantryman in World War I and ended it as commanding officer of the liberated Dachau concentration camp. Delaney could have contacted a university or a librarian and handed the trove of primary sources over to a researcher skilled in sorting through this kind of thing. Instead, he applied for a grant, and asked an archivist to come teach his students how to handle fragile historical materials. Then, for the next two years, he and his 11th grade American history students read through the documents, organized and uploaded them to the web, and wrote the biography of a man whom history nearly forgot, but who nonetheless witnessed a great deal of it.

“Joyce became the thread that went through our general studies,” Delaney says. “When we were studying World War I, we did the traditional World War I lessons and readings. And then stopped the clocks and thought, ‘What’s going on with Joyce in this period?’”

As the class repeatedly asked and answered that question, they slowly uncovered the life of a man who not only oversaw the liberated Dachau but also found himself a participant in an uncommon number of consequential events throughout Massachusetts and U.S. history. In a way Delaney couldn’t have imagined when he first popped open the suitcase that day, Joyce would turn out to be something akin to Boston’s own Forrest Gump—a perfect set of eyes through which to visit America’s past.

So cool and such an impressive, thoughtful way to teach a history class. The icing? The students built a website and put much of the content on the web before turning the collection over to the Holocaust museum.

via kottke

A week with the Sony DSC-RX1

I took off to Basel a couple weeks ago for a large environmental health conference. Before leaving, I rented a Sony DSC-RX1 from and picked it up at RayKo in San Francisco. Switching from my normal photography kit — a 5D Mark II, a 17-40 f/4 L, and a 50mm L — to this wee little gadget felt like an impossible stretch. I’ve shot almost exclusively on Canon gear since I borrowed my family’s old Canon T90 in the late 80s. I was a little scared of something new (we fear change) and concerned about how long it would take me to figure out the Sony.

The RX1 turned out to be a delight — the camera produced pictures on par with the Mark II and the fixed focal length forced me to stop and think before shooting. A good exercise for any photographer. Somewhat organized thoughts and notes on the camera follow.

At first glance, the RX1 is underwhelming — it resembles a standard point + shoot. It looks pedestrian. All that goes away, though, once in hand. It’s weighty and substantial, dense and solid. The glass — a spectacular Zeiss 35mm prime f/2.0 — has a satisfying, clicky (and wholly electronic) ring for selecting an aperture. The RX1 borrows styling cues from old school rangefinders (Leicas, the Contax G series). It’s got a full-frame 24 megapixel sensor and shoots 14-bit raw images. The screen is bright — really, really bright — and displays images vividly and accurately in broad daylight (no small feat). The overlays on the screen are nice and completely controllable; you can quickly turn on and off a batrillion status indicators. A nice touch: the ability to enable an on-screen level, helping compose the shot and avoiding rotating/cropping during post-processing. The RX1 - with this combination of fancy and traditional - is an odd gadget, full of ultra-modern, high-end technology, but formed wholly by older platonic ideals of what a camera should be.

The wonderful lens, the beautiful controls, and the insane, huge, magnificent sensor all come with some caveats. The RX-1 has no optical or electronic viewfinder. I spent the better part of my time with the camera lifting it to my face, looking for something to look through — and then remembering that my viewfinder was the screen on the back (now complete with cheek imprints). For me, that was the single most difficult thing to become accustomed to. The cost to play is high — 2800 USD. The fixed lens confused colleagues who handled the camera; once they played with it for a few minutes they wondered about other lens options. Their reaction — that at its cost, a fixed lens seemed inappropriate — wasn’t surprising.

The image quality is astounding. The RX1 performs much like other full-frame cameras — it does a great job up to ISO 3200, and fine beyond that. I shot regularly across the gamut — from 100 to 3200 — and am pleased with all of the results. The focus times weren’t nearly as fast as the Mark II, but weren’t slow enough to be a real concern, except when it was between dim and dark where I was shooting. While the focusing often failed under those conditions, the image quality held up. Battery life wasn’t great — the camera made it through most days of shooting with little power left. This was okay in Basel, where most of my days were spent in a conference center and away from camera-worthy moments. If I had been outdoors more and working less, I’m confident I would have exhausted the batteries regularly. On the upside, the camera can be charged with any portable USB battery; the downside, of course, is the added bulk. Were I to rent the RX1 again, I’d get one or two extra batteries (and an external viewfinder).

Downsides… The menus run deep and require some serious thought to decipher. They’re better than on many cameras, but that’s not saying much. Another nice touch: most of the physical buttons on the camera can be reassigned to custom functions. This helped me get comfortable with the camera much more quickly, putting commonly used controls in easy reach.

I could go on and on about this camera. But others have done that, and far more eloquently and capably than I. This, in my opinion, is the camera to beat. It redefines what a small and light camera can be, and does so without compromising image quality. It’s not perfect, but if I could afford one, it would be my go to daily camera.

What determines the adoption and continued use of advanced clean cookstoves?

Jack D, Pillarisetti A, Vaswani M, Balakrishnan K, Bates MN, Das M, Kinney P, Mukhopadhyay R, Smith KR, Arora NK. What determines the adoption and continued use of advanced clean cookstoves? ISEE/ISES/ISIAQ Joint Conference 2013. Basel, Switzerland: August 20, 2013.

"Warp drive. Like on 'Star Trek.'"

Harold G. White, a physicist and advanced propulsion engineer at NASA, beckoned toward a table full of equipment there on a recent afternoon: a laser, a camera, some small mirrors, a ring made of ceramic capacitors and a few other objects.

He and other NASA engineers have been designing and redesigning these instruments, with the goal of using them to slightly warp the trajectory of a photon, changing the distance it travels in a certain area, and then observing the change with a device called an interferometer. So sensitive is their measuring equipment that it was picking up myriad earthly vibrations, including people walking nearby. So they recently moved into this lab, which floats atop a system of underground pneumatic piers, freeing it from seismic disturbances.

The team is trying to determine whether faster-than-light travel — warp drive — might someday be possible.

Warp drive. Like on “Star Trek.”

This is a fun one. They’ve also got a nice statement from Neil deGrasse Tyson:

“Routine travel among the stars is impossible without new discoveries regarding the fabric of space and time, or capability to manipulate it for our needs,” he said, adding, “By my read, the idea of a functioning warp drive remains far-fetched, but the real take-away is that people are thinking about it — reminding us all that the urge to explore continues to run deep in our species.”

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