Science, nature, environment, and related news from the week of December 11th…
Department of Energy says Fuck You to Trump — In a rather chilling story from last week, it was revealed that the Trump transition team sent a questionnaire to Department of Energy officials, asking them to provide a list of all Federal employees or contractors who attended United Nation’s meetings on climate change, or had attended meetings or worked on studies that relate to the social and economic costs of climate change mitigation. This week, the Department of Energy refused to comply, stating “Our career workforce, including our contractors and employees at our labs, comprise the backbone of DOE (Department of Energy) and the important work our department does to benefit the American people. We are going to respect the professional and scientific integrity and independence of our employees at our labs and across our department.” We have an Exxon Mobil exec slated for Secretary of State. We have Rick Perry slated for head of DOE, an agency he once vowed to eradicate. We have a proposed head of EPA that is an avowed climate change denier. We have a proposed head of Department of Interior that also is a climate change denier. And with this DOE request, we have evidence that the Trump administration will actively discriminate against climate science in the Federal government, and those who do climate change work. There’s plenty of evidence of the new administration’s inability to live in the same facts-based world as the rest of us, but the position being firmed up on climate change is especially frightening.
Rex Tillerson, Exxon CEO, proposed for Secretary of State — And in an obviously related story, Trump formally announced his intention to nominate Rex Tillerson, CEO of Exxon Mobil, as Secretary of State. An oil executive, with no government experience, picked to play the key role in international relations. What could go wrong? This New York Times piece notes that Exxon has an immense stake in our diplomatic relationship with Russia, with literally billions of dollars at stake should economic sanctions against Russia be lifted or revised. As noted from the previous story, from an environmental standpoint, the entire suite of proposed administration officials is a complete disaster for the environmental, including stated desires to move away from clean energy towards the old days of oil, gas, and coal. Nothing exemplifies the forthcoming disaster more than the Tillerson pick.
Human beings hard-wired to believe blowhards — Recent research has shown that people base their belief system on personal experience, but also place a heavy emphasis on the beliefs of “confident” people that they come into contact with. As the story notes, people’s beliefs can be swayed by those displaying confidence in their own beliefs and opinions, even in the face of contradictory evidence. In a world where “fake news” arguably became the biggest meme of 2016, clearly this study is on the mark. Nowadays, it’s not what you say or whether it’s true, it’s how you say it.
Feathered dinosaur tail found preserved in amber — OK, enough of the depressing news from the week. Scientists in China have made an incredible find, with a beautifully feathered tail from a pint-sized dinosaur found perfectly preserved in amber. The tail section is small, less than 2 inches long, but contains 8 perfectly preserved vertebrate. Based on the vertebrate and other structures in the tail, scientists can definitively attribute the tail section as a portion of a small dinosaur the size of a sparrow. The find has also been a boon for trying to understand the evolution of feathers themselves, as there are characteristics of the feathers that are very different from those in modern birds.
“Winds of sapphires and rubies” found on exoplanet — The story itself is very interesting. For the first time, scientists have been able to find evidence of active weather systems on a planet outside of our solar system. Gas giant “HAT-P-7b” (a catch name) was found to have extremely strong wind patterns, an effect that was observable due to shifting patterns of monitored light from the planet. Interesting story, but the headline that was chosen reinforces a major pet peeve of mine…trying to sensationalize science. No, the winds of the planet are filled with sapphires and rubies, as the title suggest. The atmosphere is likely made of corundum, a mineral that is found in sapphires and rubies. I understand the desire to capture the attention of a reader, particularly given that people generally have the attention span of your typical 2-year old. But it’s enough that the mainstream media constantly sensationalizes stories (or focuses on sensationalist material). We don’t need that kind of mindset in the sciences.
Climate changes causes melting glaciers — Scientists looked at 37 glaciers and for all but 1 of them, stated that there’s at least a 90% chance that their decline was due to climate change. Well, duh. I need to write this kind of paper, something that restates the obvious but is sure to gather a lot of acclaim and attention.
Reindeer declining due to climate change, human activity — An extremely well-studied group of Reindeer in Russia have suffered dramatic declines of 40% in the last 15 years.Part of the problem is industrial activity within their range, which has led to changes in the migration patterns, but another issue is undoubtedly climate change. Warming temperatures can drastically alter the environment, but can also have other unforeseen impacts. As shown in another study on caribou in North America, warming temperatures have changed the phenology (seasonality) of Arctic regions. Melting occurs much earlier in the spring, and open water exists for much longer periods of time compared to several decades ago. Mosquito populations have boomed as a result, to such an extent that they are having a very detrimental impact on reindeer and caribou populations. Thank goodness though we have a new incoming administration that will categorically state that climate change isn’t real and isn’t affecting anything. That should solve the problem.
Do you want squid with those chips? — Alright, THIS is too much. Melting glaciers? Whatever. Reindeer and caribou disappearing? Meh. But when climate change starts to impact one of my favorite meals, fish-and-chips, THEN something has to be done!! In the 1980s, squid were caught in 20% of surveys in the North Sea around Great Britain. Now, squid are caught in 60% of surveys and numbers continue to increase. As waters warm, not only are squid being found more often, but warmer water fish such as anchovies and sardines, are increasing. The center of productivity of a fish-and-chips stable fish…cod…has continued to move north. As the climate warms and squid become more common, you might have to replace that tasty breaded cod with some squid in your next “fish”-and-chips order.
Distracted while talking — What the hell, I’ll bring up another pet peeve of mine…cell phones and cars. I do wonder just how many accidents are directly related to distracted drivers, given how often you come across drivers weaving all over the road, people driving 15 mph below the speed limit and not even realizing it because they’re on the phone, people who sit there when the light turns green, etc. As this new study points out, it’s not the fact that you’re using your hands that makes distracted driving such as this dangerous. Just conversing with hands-free equipment greatly reduces a driver’s perception and awareness of their surroundings.
Looking to put men in their place this Christmas? Try some AC/DC!!! — We had family up for Thanksgiving, and one of the most enjoyable aspects was playing UNO and other games for much of the day. Playing board or card games is something that many do over the holidays, and this study found a way for women to potentially dominate their male counterparts this Christmas. Men were much more likely to make mistakes in playing board games while listening to music than were females. The study noted that classical music had little effect on men, but playing something like AC/DC significantly decreased their performance. Interesting study, but I must take offense at the phrase of men being “forced to listen to AC/DC”. No one “forces” you to listen to AC/DC! If I want play Sorry or Life or Clue or UNO this Christmas, well damn it, I also reserve the right to jam out to “Hells Bells” or “Back In Black” or “Thunderstruck” while I play! Hmmm…maybe they’re onto something with this story…it is hard to play board games and do justice with my air guitar at the same time…