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March for Science, the “Harry Potter” crab, and more – Science, nature, and other news

Science, nature, environmental, and other news from the week.  Click on the story title for an external link.

March For Science

March for Science, coming to a city near you in a little over 2 months. Here’s hoping the march provides that “spark” that’s been missing between the American public and the scientists that serve them.

Planning continues for April 22nd March for Science — The “March for Science” is still scheduled for April 22nd, a grassroots effort to highlight the role of science within American politics and society.  The march has its roots in the backlash against the ghastly, anti-science tirades made by the Trump administration since the election, but as this story notes, the march is about the American public, and not the scientists themselves. This article from the Chronicle for Higher Education is focused on Caroline Weinberg, one of the March’s organizers. As Weinberg notes, there’s currently a disconnect between scientific research and the people in society whom that science benefits.  I couldn’t agree more with that statement, as scientists sometimes are QUITE terrible at communicating the value of their research to the public.  It’s easy for the public to understand the potential societal benefits of medical research, for example, but much more difficult for them to understand why investments in other scientific fields are societally relevant.  Personally, I am mixed on the March.  As a scientist, as a truly ANGRY scientist who is fed up with both the politicization of science, and with the anti-science attitude that has pervaded an entire major political party of the United States, I want this march to have every bit as much of an impact as the Women’s March held just after the inauguration. On the other hand, I view the March with a bit of trepidation.  We have a child as our President, an insecure, narcissistic man who must have a penis the size of a paper clip, given his tendency to angrily lash out at any entity that dares criticize himself or his actions.  Given Trump’s tendency to angrily push back when he himself is pushed, I fear that the march may end up doing more harm than good, in terms of the short-term political implications.  Despite any potential short-term impact, here’s hoping the march DOES inspire a longer-term engagement between the public and the scientists that serve the public.  Here’s hoping the march helps to reignite the PASSION Americans once held for science.

Solnova Solar Plant - Spain

The Solnova Solar Plant in Spain, an example of the massive global trend in the movement towards renewable fuel sources.

Solar power economics trump Trump — In just a few weeks after the inauguration, it’s quite clear that we already have what’s likely going to be among the most environmentally hostile administrations in history, even “besting” the dark conservation years of Ronald Reagan.  Anne Gorsuch Burford, EPA head under Reagan for nearly 2 years (and mother of conservative Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch), was famed for slashing nearly one-quarter of EPA staff, greatly reducing enforcement of Clean Air Act regulations, severely cutting legal action against environmental polluters, and populated EPA staff with big business executives from the very companies the EPA was supposed to be monitoring.  As bad as Reagan and Gorsuch Burford were…Trump’s team could very well be headed down an even darker path. On the energy front, Trump has vowed to slash Department of Energy funding, with a strong push for older, fossil-fuel energy sources as opposed to continued investment in renewables such as solar and wind power.  As this story notes, however, the very economics of solar energy may end up “trumping Trump” in the end. Costs for solar power now rival those of natural gas, and are cheaper than coal or nuclear energy.  Over two-thirds of new energy production in the U.S. in 2016 was from wind or solar, and with economics continuing to dictate the shift to renewables, even an environmentally hostile administration is unlikely to slow the trend.

Using Rabies to Kill Cancer — Brain cancers can be notoriously difficult to treat. The blood-brain barrier is protects the brain from nearly all pathogens, yet that same protective effect also restricts cancer treatments from reaching cancerous cells in the brain.  Scientists have long known that the rabies virus had the unusual capability to “hijack” nerve cells and use them as a means to bypass the blood-brain barrier.  Now they are using fragments of the rabies virus to coat cancer-fighting drugs, or even create new particles that mimic the characteristics of the rabies virus, enabling them to bypass the blood-brain barrier and reach cancerous brain cells.  The work is in its infancy and there are still many hurdles to overcome before such treatments could be used to treat persons inflicted with brain cancer, but it’s a great example both of the ingenuity of scientists, and the potential biological value of even one of our most feared pathogens.

Cactus Wren - Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus

A Cactus Wren on a blooming Saguaro cactus. A moderately sized songbird such as the Cactus Wren may be able to cope with heat and dehydration somewhat better than smaller songbird species, but they are still potentially threatened by rapidly changing climatic conditions.

Desert birds at risk from climate change — A new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy for Science finds that climate change may have a devastating impact on some desert bird species in the coming decades, particularly smaller species such as Lesser Goldfinch.  Higher temperatures increase water needs for birds, particularly as they pant in response to temperature stress. Climate change may make parts of some species range “thermally inhospitable”, with birds potentially succumbing to heat stress and dehydration after just a few hours of exposure at extremely high temperatures.  Geographic population shifts are likely to occur as the climate changes, with birds moving to more hospitable locations, but with human-induced climate change, we are currently embarking on a grand, global-scale experiment on the ability of habitats and their inhabitants to adjust to changing climatic conditions.

Crab named for Harry Potter, Severus Snape — A newly identified crab species off the coast of Guam has been given the honor of being named after a pair of characters from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series of books.  Harryplax severus is the new scientific name for the species, in honor of Harry Potter and the much maligned, and loved, Severus Snape from the series. A great name for an enigmatic, little understood, newly discovered crab species!

Monarch Butterfly populations take a tumble — Populations of the much beloved Monarch Butterfly have taken a hit over the last year, due to the one-two punch of declining milkweed habitat on their summering grounds, and winter storms that have taken a toll on their wintering habitat in Mexico. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Mexican government measure the winter habitat area used by Monarch Butterflies, a quantitative estimate that serves as a proxy to overall population  health.  2-years ago, Monarch populations hit an all-time low, with only 0.67 hectares of habitat used for over-wintering.  Populations rebounded over the last 2 years, but the harsh conditions this year has results in a loss of over 25% of winter habitat area actively being used.

Oscar

One of our two spaniels, “Oscar”. According to science, we should have similar personalities to Oscar! He is certainly a beautiful, gentle soul, mirroring the traits of my son and wife! And yet he also has a quirky, neurotic, hard-to-understand side that perfectly mimics his troubled “father”.

Dogs mimic their owners’ personalities — New research from Austria claims that dogs and humans can pass along personality traits to each other, with human beings taking on the carefree, relaxed attitudes of dogs with those personality traits, and dogs adapting the anxiety characteristics from a stressed owner. For any dog owner, it’s not exactly a surprise that dogs are “sensitive to their owner’s emotional state”, but this study actually used measurements of cortisol, a “stress” hormone, to quantify the relationship.

Our planetary footprint shows no bounds — There’s little that frustrates me more than those with a strong religious belief who doubt that mankind even has the capability of significantly altering our planet.  You’ve complete imbeciles like Senate loser James Inhofe who seem hell-bent on ignoring every piece of science that may fall into their lap, with Inhofe doubting in climate change because he doesn’t believe man can affect change at such a massive scale. For idiots like Inhofe, only a god has the capability to have such far-reaching planetary impacts. For scientists, it’s obvious mankind has had such a massive impact on the planet as a whole that we may be in a new geologic era, the “Anthropocene”, characterized by massive environmental change as a result of anthropogenic activity.  This story notes that our effects on the planet extend even down to the deepest ocean trenches, where amphipods from 10,000 kilometers below the ocean’s surface have been found to have extremely high concentrations of PCBs and other man-made, organic pollutants.  It’s tough to deny mankind’s influence when creatures many hundreds of miles from any human settlement, at the bottom of the ocean, are poisoned by our activities.

Human’s driving climate to change at 170X the natural trend — Related to the story above, more evidence of mankind’s massive influence on our environment.  A new study by Australian National University finds that volcanic activity, changes in solar activity, and minor orbital fluctuations have influenced the Earth’s climate over the last 7,000 years, but the impact of mankind’s activities has been 170 times more pronounced than these natural forces. Climate-change deniers have tried to attribute the startling climate trends in recent decades to natural forces, but there’s little scientific evidence to back them. The Australian National University study is just one more nail in the coffin of climate-change deniers (a coffin that’s already been nailed shut for many years now).

Europa

Composite image of Jupiter’s moon Europa, from the Galileo and Voyager missions.

Searching for life on Europa — A science mission that even our science-hostile Congress is behind…searching for life in the Solar System.  NASA has preliminary plans to send a probe to Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons. Europa is a cold, hostile place on the surface, covered in ice, but it’s a different story under the surface.  The tidal pull of Jupiter’s gravity is thought to provide an energy source that produces a thick sub-surface liquid ocean.  Cracks on the relatively smooth surface of Europa are evidence of the sub-surface water reaching the surface.  NASA believes they can potentially detect life on the moon by landing a probe on one of these surface breaches, digging down several centimeters into the surface ice, and using multiple instruments to detect microbes or organic signs of life.  Alas, the estimate is that the actual landing is 14 years from now, in 2031, but the proposed mission could finally answer the question of whether there’s life outside of the Earth.

Biggest volcano on the planet discovered — It’s 2017.  We’ve had extensive, periodic, repeating satellite coverage of the earth’s surface for over 40 years.  We’ve seemingly visited every corner of the earth’s terrestrial surface, and have increasingly mapped vast swaths of the hidden world under our oceans. The days of exploration and geographic discovery may seem to be in our far distant past, but as this find shows, there’s a lot we still don’t understand about our home planet.  Scientists from the the U.S., U.K., and Japan have discovered what is currently the largest known volcanic system on the planet.  “Tamu Massif” is a volcanic complex in the north Pacific ocean, about 1,000 miles east of Japan.  The tallest reaches of the volcanic remnants are more than a mile below the ocean’s surface, but the volcano itself covers an area nearly the size of New Mexico.  It’s thought to have last erupted over 140 million years ago, and is a shield volcano similar to the Hawaiian Island volcanoes. Mauna Loa in Hawaii is considered the world’s largest active volcano, with an area of around 2,000 square miles, but that’s a tiny fraction of the size of Tamu Massif which comes in at over 120,000 square miles.

 

In The News – Week of December 11th

Science, nature, environment, and related news from the week of December 11th…

U.S. Department of Energy

Not a great time for DOE officials (or other government agencies dealing with climate change). First they’re asked to turn over the names of all employees who work on climate change issues, and then they are given a new department head in Rick Perry who once stated the department should be eliminated.

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.

Dinosaur Tail in Amber

A portion of a feathered dinosaur tail, found perfectly preserved in amber. Bits of feathers have been found in amber before, but what makes this find extraordinary is the presence of 8 complete vertebrate and perfectly preserved connection structures, enabling scientists to state beyond any doubt that the tail comes from a sparrow-sized dinosaur.

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.

Icefields Parkway - Alberta, Canada

Athabaska Glacier and the Columbia Icefields, in Alberta, Canada. We were there this summer, and in the 15 years from our last visit, the glacier has obviously receded quite a bit. Scientists this week “confirmed” such events are due to climate change. Duh…

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.

Loligo_vulgaris

“Loligo vulgaris”, a European squid that is become much more common in waters of the North Sea. The “vulgaris” part sounds about right to me, because although I enjoy calamari, the idea of replacing tasty cod in fish-and-chips with this just seems a bit “vulgar” to me.

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.

AC/DC Logo

I can multitask! Air guitar while listening to Back in Black is perfectly compatible with simultaneously playing a board game.

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…

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