Category Archives: Earth & Environment

I Love Pennsylvania: Notes from the National Association of Science Writers Conference

I am so glad to be back in Pennsylvania.

Oh, don’t get me wrong, the folks at the University of Florida did a great job at hosting the National Association of Science Writers annual conference, which started last week. The University of Florida, which I toured, is doing some impressive research and I enjoyed touring the Florida Innovation Hub.

And the people of Florida are incredibly nice.

But, man, do they have critter problems.  Continue reading I Love Pennsylvania: Notes from the National Association of Science Writers Conference

Cool Images, Big Potential: Startup Uses Lasers to Create 3D Imagery

A laser that creates a three-dimensional picture of a bee’s head may sound like an experiment being conducted in Dr. Evil’s super-secret volcano base, but this technology is blossoming right here at Penn State — and it has real-world applications for research in agriculture and horticulture.

The head of a yellow jacket
The head of a yellow jacket

At a recent talk at the Millennium Science Complex, Benjamin Hall, an undergraduate student in energy engineering working part-time in the laser lab of the Applied Research Laboratory at Penn State, discussed the technique — and showed images and videos that rival most Hollywood special effects. By placing an object, such as a plant root, on a moveable platform that passes under a laser, researchers can vaporize the sample section by section. The technique creates a series of surface images, which Hall then processes with a software program to create three-dimensional interior and exterior — and unbelievably cool — images of the sample.  Continue reading Cool Images, Big Potential: Startup Uses Lasers to Create 3D Imagery

Eternal Life on Earth and in the Universe

I’m pretty sure I’ll never write my autobiography and I’m almost just as sure no one will write my biography unless I’m missing something.  I’ve written thousands of stories in 38 years as a science writer so I’ll remain on the web forever.  Doesn’t bother me.
Roland Winkler, Leibnitz Institution of Astrophysics, Potsdam

Some people, without autobiographies or biographies, still end up memorialized in books, which is what recently happened to some Penn State faculty members from the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences.

Another science writer, Lee Billings, wrote a book, “Five Billion Years of Solitude: The Search for Life Among the Stars,” which is about looking for other living, sentient beings in the universe.  This book ended up on my desk because I get sent this type of book from time to time.  I thought wow, I wonder if Jim Kasting, Evan Pugh Professor of Geosciences, was in the book.  Looked in the index and sure enough he was, as was his twin brother, wife and children.

Not only was he in the book, but nearly an entire chapter, “Out of Equilibrium” was about his work, very cool.

But I was actually sent the book because another faculty member, Michael Arthur, professor of geosciences, former department head and co-director of SolitudeCover2the Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research, was in the book.  That’s what the letter that came with the book said.  His chapter is “The Big Picture.”  I was puzzled.  Arthur is a sedimentary geologist.  He studies how rocks are formed, so I wasn’t quite sure how he fit into this book.  And the chapter talks about black shale, the Marcellus shale gas producing area and other petroleum and natural gas stuff.  In fact, another Penn State faculty member mentioned is Terry Engelder, professor of geoscience, who initially estimated how much gas was in the Marcellus.  I know, because I wrote that story.  But then I read on and realized that Arthur was using the Marcellus shale, the last shale oil/gas deposit to show no terrestrial plant inclusions — it was formed before life moved to land — as an example of the evolution of intelligent life.  And so the story moved from sea to land to animals of all kinds and finally to humans.  Intelligent life one presumes.  Although Lee refers to it as the sixth major extinction event, suggesting that humans in their agrarian onslaught homogenized the planet and wiped out myriad species.  So the history of the Earth leads to the search for intelligent life in the universe.
Frank Lewecke

Kasting is known for his work on figuring out where, in the orbits around suns, habitable planets can exist.  These planets must be at a distance from their suns so that throughout the time it takes for life to evolve to intelligent beings, water remains liquid — at least most of the time.  So no totally frozen planets and no planets too hot for liquid water.  This becomes complicated because suns change their power through times.  Kasting also does work on the “faint young sun” paradox, which explains that the sun was weaker when young and grew stronger.  This moves the habitable zone further out as a sun ages.

So Kasting and Arthur are memorialized in this book. One, for looking far into the universe and future, and one for looking far into the past and beneath the earth.  Both trying to understand how we got where we are and how some other intelligent being might get there too.

There’s Fame, and then There’s Fame

The goal of most university faculty is to publish their research in a peer reviewed journal. This brings notice among their peers, sometimes fame and sometimes just a nod. Rarely, in the complex science, technology and engineering world of today, does a journal paper elicit much notice outside of the specific academic discipline.

Michael MannEven when I write a news story about a published paper, fame is usually very brief, no more than three to five days and the researcher goes back to the lab and ongoing work. Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame is usually spot on.

But sometimes, for good or bad, a paper has a more sizeable impact. No one knows this more than Michael Mann, Distinguished Professor of Meteorology and director, Earth System Science Center here at Penn State. Long, long ago, on April 23, 1998, Mann and Raymond S. Bradley, University ofMassachusetts, Amherst, and Malcolm Hughes, Laboratory of Tree Ring Research, University ofArizona, published “Global-scale temperature patterns and climate forcing over the past six centuries” in Nature, the foremost British science journal. I’m sure none of these men thought it was that unusual a paper. But it was.

Out of that paper came more than a decade of discussion, anti-global warming warfare and personal attacks as well as the certainly recognizable “hockey stick graph.”

Hockey_StickThe hijacking of e-mails written by Mann and others in the climate field by still unknown hackers, heated up attacks and brought the general public, advocacy groups on both sides and anti-global warming anti-science groups out in force.

Lofty bodies as diverse as the U.S. House of Representatives, the National Academy of Sciences, the U.S. Senate and Penn State among others investigated Mann, his research and in every case agreed that the research was solid. Not that this served to end the attacks.  Because Mann once worked at a Virginia university, Virginia’s attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli, began a witch hunt against climate scientists and specifically against Mann.

The travails of anti-climate science attacks are chronicled in Mann’s book, “The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the front lines,” (Columbia University Press, 2012).

So, Michael Mann became famous, gave testimony before Congress, interviews to myriad print publications and appeared on TV. He also had YouTube video animations that made fun of him and was called every name in the book. Through all this, he continued to do research on global warming and climate change, publishing papers in Nature, Nature Geoscience and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences for example. In 2013, the University named him a Distinguished Professor.

This month, Bloomberg News announced it’s top 50 most influential people. They divide the 50 into Bankers, Money Managers, Policy Makers, Power Brokers and Thinkers. Bloomberg is a business oriented new organization so it is no surprise these are the categories or that 48 of the 50 are either business people, economists or money managers of some kind. The 49th is a U.S. Attorney suing people for insider trading.

Even in the Thinker category, while many are academics, all but one are economists. Only Michael Mann does not fit this description, but he is one of the ten Thinkers, and cited for responding “to climate change deniers on his RealClimate blog.”

So, there’s fame, and then there is fame. Not all publicity is good publicity, but if one is willing to slog through the stinking marshes, maybe, just maybe you can come out the other side smelling like a rose.

Not the Heat but the Humidity

Cloudy sky
Cloudy sky over Penn State University Park campus. Credit: Patrick Mansell, Penn State

Today it is overcast, but not raining.  At least not yet.  It’s Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts time, and in my experience it is either blisteringly hot or we experience torrential downpours during this week in summer, but the weather forecast for the weekend looks good.

Not so the past three weeks.  We’ve been hit with rain nearly every day.  One day it hailed.  The ground is saturated and people who have never had water in their basements do now.  On some days I’ve been soaked from head to foot up to three times.  And it hasn’t been just the rain.  Even when it is not raining the temperatures have been on the high side for State College and the humidity has been very high, sometimes in the 80 and 90 percent range without rain.  It’s not unusual to start down a road only to find it closed due to temporary flooding.

July is usually one of our rainiest months, but this year has been unusual.  The normal range of jokes is circulating.  Checking for webbing between ones feet and mold just about everywhere.  But clothes dry; unlike the Wicked Witch of the West, humans don’t melt in the rain; and better weather is on the way.  No harm no foul, right?

Two students with backpacks from the back with umbrellas walking together in the rain
Two students walk in the rain on the University Park campus of Penn State. Credit: Patrick Mansell, Penn State

Not true. Certainly farmers are complaining because they can’t get into their fields and home owners have soggy lawns to mow with weeds that grow a mile a minute.  However, other aspects of the humid, hot weather are not always considered.

I was interviewing a researcher the other day about a materials formation process.  A method that will make perfectly spherical micron sized balls.  During the interview I asked lots of questions about the material, its uses and production.  We were just about finished with the interview when the researcher said, “Well, you know, with this weather, my graduate students have not been able to produce any material in the past two weeks.”

Even in a brand new, fully air-conditioned building, the systems could not keep up with the humidity.  This particular method needs dry air in order to produce the uniformly sized spheres.  During this past rainy period, the humidity was just too high to produce them.  Inside, in a laboratory, the weather was retarding the progress of  research.

This certainly isn’t the only research being done on campus suffering from the extremely high moisture content in our air.  A vast majority of things won’t dry in this humidity, even inside.  Some chemical reactions are affected.  Anything that is supposed to be anhydrous — without water — is going to have too much moisture and anything that is hydroscopic — water loving or water attracting — is also going to have too much moisture.

However, not only is science and technology research impaired by the humidity, but other areas of scholarship also suffered.  Paint won’t dry, ceramics retain water and paper becomes damp and unusable.  Baking a cake or doing anything with sugar or honey becomes difficult because sugar and honey are hydroscopic and draw more moisture into the food than required.  So, at least some food science research must be put on hold.

Two to three weeks does not seem like a very long time, but if you are a graduate student trying to finish research to defend your dissertation by a certain date, those three weeks could mean the difference between graduating in August or graduating in December.

Besides, while everyone is uncomfortable in the weather we have just had, the researchers suffering from too much moisture in the air have the additional inconvenience of not being able to do what they do best — move the frontier of science and technology just that much further along.