Friday, September 27, 2013

We Are Killing Us

The number of earthquakes has increased dramatically over the past few years within the central and eastern United States. 

More than 300 earthquakes above a magnitude 3.0 occurred in the three years from 2010-2012, compared with an average rate of 21 events per year observed from 1967-2000.

USGS scientists have found that at some locations the increase in seismicity coincides with the injection of wastewater in deep disposal wells. Much of this wastewater is a byproduct of oil and gas production and is routinely disposed of by injection into wells specifically designed and approved for this purpose.

More information here, from your friends at the United States Geological Survey.

At Last - My Own (REAL) Light Saber

Creating molecules out of light:

A group led by Harvard Professor of Physics Mikhail Lukin and MIT Professor of Physics Vladan Vuletic have managed to bind photons into molecules -- a state of matter that, until recently, had been purely theoretical. The work is described in a September 25 paper in Nature.

"Photonic molecules," behave like something you might find in science fiction -- the light saber.

"Most of the properties of light we know about originate from the fact that photons are massless, and that they do not interact with each other," Lukin said. "What we have done is create a special type of medium in which photons interact with each other so strongly that they begin to act as though they have mass, and they bind together to form molecules.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Sick People Make Good Guinea Pigs - An End to Flu?

Unless, of course, Those Who Didn't Pay Attention in School start another anti-vaccination campaign.

Scientists have moved closer to developing a universal flu vaccine after using the 2009 pandemic as a natural experiment to study why some people seem to resist severe illness.

Researchers at Imperial College London asked volunteers to donate blood samples just as the swine flu pandemic was getting underway and report any symptoms they experienced over the next two flu seasons.

They found that those who avoided severe illness had more CD8 T cells, a type of virus-killing immune cell, in their blood at the start of the pandemic.

New strains of flu are continuously emerging, some of which are deadly, and so the goal is to create a universal vaccine that would be effective against all strains of flu.

Today's flu vaccines make the immune system produce antibodies that recognize the surface of the virus. Unfortunately flu viruses evolve new surface structures quickly, so last year's vaccine doesn't work and this year's vaccine is a guess.

CD8 T cells target the core of the virus, which doesn't change, even in new strains.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Dino Feathers!

These feathers got stuck in a glob of amber
millions of years ago.   
Image credit: Science/AAAS
As reported in Discover Magazine, a group of Canadian researchers seem to have found actual dinosaur feathers preserved in amber.  

Science is much more fun than anti-science!

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Another Problem for People Who Didn't Pay Attention in School

Those persons who will gladly believe any nonsense as long as it isn't true have jumped on a recent increase in Antarctic ice as proof that global climate change is a conspiracy dreamed up by hundreds of thousands of scientists for their own nefarious purposes.

Unfortunately, there is an explanation for the increase that won't make them happy.

Apparently, an increase in winds near the south pole (hmmm, wonder what is causing that?) is responsible.  Stronger westerly winds swirling around the South Pole can explain 80 percent of the increase in Antarctic sea ice volume in the past three decades.

 The increased winds are chilling the water, causing ice to form.  Then the wind piles the ice into thicker layers that resist melting.

Doesn't science just ruin your day, conspiracy theorists?

No Hurry. Or Is There?

Findings published in the journal Astrobiology reveal that planet Earth should be able to support life for another 1.7 billion years - based on our distance from the sun and temperatures at which it is possible for the planet to have liquid water.  Eventually the Sun will expand as it dies, and the seas will all boil away.

Of, course, if you are interested in human life, Andrew Rushby, from University of East Anglia's school of Environmental Sciences has this for you: 

"Of course conditions for humans and other complex life will become impossible much sooner - and this is being accelerated by anthropogenic climate change. Humans would be in trouble with even a small increase in temperature, and near the end only microbes in niche environments would be able to endure the heat.

More information at Science Daily.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Shine On Harvest Moon

The Autumn Equinox occurs on September 22 this year.  This is the date when the Sun shines directly over the equator at noon.  The amount of daylight and darkness is the same at equal latitudes north and south. 

Hartford, at 41.7627° N will receive 12 hours, 9 minutes, and 11 seconds of sunshine. At 41.7627° S, in southern Argentina, you would also get 12 hours, 9 minutes, and 11 seconds of sunshine.

While you will hear lots of talk about September 22 being the first day of autumn, it really isn't.

Astronomers use the equinoxes and solstices to divide the astronomical seasons, but we live on Earth, not in the stars.

For the Biosphere, the changing amount of sunlight over the year signals the seasons.  Around August 1st, the Biosphere's first day of autumn, the shortening day starts the fruit and grain to ripen.  By mid-autumn, the equinox, the harvest is in full swing, with more tomatoes and apples than we can eat.

That is why the Harvest Moon is important.  The Harvest Moon is the full moon closest to the autumn equinox.  This year, in Connecticut, it arrives on the 19th, just after sunrise.

What does that signify?  With all of that ripening grain and fruit, there was not enough time in the day to harvest it all.
“In the days before electric lights, farmers depended on bright moonlight to extend the workday beyond sunset,” writes NASA’s Dr. Tony Phillips. “It
was the only way they could gather their ripening crops in time for market. The full moon closest to the autumnal equinox became the Harvest Moon, and it was always a welcome sight.”

Monday, September 16, 2013

Too Much Rain

Last week I spent 4 days in Boulder, Colorado.

The Monday I arrived, it rained a bit.

Tuesday, there was some drizzling.  Walked across Boulder Creek and around the campus.

Boulder Creek, near my hotel.  I was gone by then.
Wednesday, it rained so hard that after visiting the National Center for Atmospheric Research (they have wonderful displays) we went back to the hotel to wait it out.  It didn't stop.

Wednesday night the crashing of the rain on the roof and the sirens kept us awake.  I worried about getting to the airport on Thursday.

Thursday we left Boulder in a downpour.  There was water on the roads.  The 40 minute drive to the airport took an hour and a half.

Then the water came down from the hills.

According to NCAR, 14.7 inches of rain fell - an entire year's worth in 2 days.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Keep Them Ignorant. Keep Them Afraid.

A bipartisan group of Representatives introduced a bill that would create a Science Laureate to indicate to the US public the value placed on science. Unfortunately, that plan has hit a snag, as lobbyists freaked out over fears the Science Laureate could introduce the US public to reality on the topic of climate change.

A spokesman from The Competitive Enterprise Institute basically said that his group didn't want to see scientists talking to the public.

More from Ars Technica  and the AAAS.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Had Enough to Drink?

My students often asked me during our studies how they could tell if they are drinking enough water to stay healthy.

The National Parks Service has a great poster all over Death Valley warning of dehydration.  This is how you know:

This is much better than passing out and dying, leaving your mummified corpse to be found by future park visitors.

Apples Are Ripe!

As I set out on my walk this morning, I picked a ripe apple from the tree in front of my house.  Juicy and sweet!

Still wondering:  Why would anyone with a bit of land NOT plant a fruit tree?

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Travel Advice

Getting towards the end of the trip.  We're tired and we want to go home.  So I will wrap this up with some travel tips for those of you who might be heading to Utah/Colorado:

The Grumpy Old Scientist
sees another red rock cliff.
First of all, if you want to see the famous national parks remember that everyone else does also.  And, once you have seen one red rock cliff. . . .

Zion is worth the free shuttle through the park.  Look at the walls and the canyon.  Then get out.  There's better.  No entrance fee after 6 PM, but the shuttle runs until 10.

Bryce Canyon will blow your mind.  Then it will try to do it again with a similar view.  It gets repetitive very quickly.  Drive in to Inspiration Point.  It is beautiful.  Look.  Then drive back to Sunrise Point.  Look.  Amazing.  Then get out before you are trampled.

DO THIS:  Drive Utah state highway 12, the Million Dollar Highway.  You will see everything that you could see in the national parks, with no crowds or fees.  We drove east from Bryce, but you could also do this heading west from Torrey.  Just follow this backwards and avoid Tropic, Utah with the most depressed-looking populace in the world.  

Make sure that you visit Escalante Petrified Forest State Park on UT-12.  It won't be
Petrified wood, just
lying around
crowded.  Climb up the short trail to the pinyon / juniper forest and walk the 1-mile loop. 

Escalante Petrified Forset
State Park
 Besides the petrified wood you will see beautiful views and have the peace to enjoy them.

We saw only one other couple, and a few lizards.

The crowds in the state park
After the state park, we continued east on UT-12 to the "scenic lookout".  We could see much of Utah from there.
Looking out over UT-12 -
from UT-12

Then over the hogback, a narrow strip of road with a 1000 foot dropoff on either side.  I drove slowly.

We stopped in Boulder, Utah as recommended by that wonderful woman in Kolob, turned onto the Burr Trail and ate at the second restaurant.  Good folk with great advice on what to look for. Then we drove down the 17 mile Burr Trail road.  Everything that you can see in the national parks was there:  Red rock cliffs, incredible rock formations, slot canyons, desert creeks, everything but people.  

Burr Trail rock formations
Burr Trail

Creek flowing through
canyon on Burr Trail
Red rock cliffs on
Burr Trail

No charge and no people on the
Burr Trail road in Boulder, UT

At the end of the 17 miles, the canyon opens up to give you a wonderful view of Capitol Reef National Park.  Guaranteed, Driving UT-12 between Torrey and Bryce will be the best part of any trip to Utah.

Dinosaur bones in the wild
If you go to the Dinosaur National Monument you can go into the quarry building with other people and you see the bones.  Cool.  You can take the guided hike back down to the visitor center and see bones in the wild.  Cool.  Then if you are smart, you will drive a ways down the road to Josie's cabin.  Too cool for words.

This is Josie Basset Morris, of The Outlaw Josie Wells fame.  One tough bird.  Built a homestead, lived on her own for 50 years, hung out with Butch Cassidy, rustled cattle.  Her cabin is still standing.
Josie's Cabin.
Butch Cassidy slept here.
 Go inside.  Then walk past the animal shed and down the trail to the box canyon.  Probably no one else will be there. 

Golden Eagle

Golden eagles will talk to you.  Flowers.  Bees.  Meadows.  Understand why she fought (literally) to stay there.

Josie's Meadow

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Throwing Away The Schedule

A slow, rainy day in Boulder, Colorado and a chance to catch up.  Boulder is the crunchy granola/high tech capitol of the USA, and the hotel has WIFI along with a skylight and a toilet that offers half and full flush.

Death Valley Park Ranger Laura Lynn told us that when she gets time off, she likes to visit Ash Meadows in Nevada.   We had never heard of Ash Meadows, so we went there.

We left Death Valley at sunrise (we saw lots of sunrises on our trip) and drove for over an hour through the desert.  We saw one car the whole time, going the other way.  We knew when we crossed into Nevada:  in the middle of absolutely nothing was a large casino.

Ash Meadows
Crystal Spring at Ash Meadows
Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge is beautiful.  There is a long walk that goes along a stream up to its source, a spring with lots of crystal clear water, and lots of endangered pup fish.   We heard but did not see roadrunners.

Crystal Lake

On our way out of the refuge we came across some road workers who were burying cable.  The flagger stopped us, just to have someone to talk to.  The guest book at the visitor's center showed that we were the first to stop at the refuge in 2 days.

We drove for a few hours until we reached Pahrump.  There is nothing more to say about that place except that it took too long to get out. We took no photos.

Then more peaceful desert, and the highway passed through Las Vegas.  In the 4 years since we last saw this melanoma on the desert it has increased in size dramatically.  Surgery recommended.

Zion National Park.
Now you've seen it.
Sacred Datura.
Now you're seeing things.
We arrived in Springdale, Utah around dinner time, took the free shuttle to Zion National Park (this one was Planned), and then took the free shuttle around the park.  Since we went in after 6PM entrance to the park was free, although that doesn't matter to us, because we have our lifetime passes!

FREE entry to all Federal parks, monuments,
and amusement parks

Emerald Springs
The shuttle gave us a chance to see the cliffs and to pick out something to see.  The next morning we were there (at sunrise, before the park filled up with touri) and walked up to the Middle Emerald Springs.  By the time we walked down the park was crowded, and we had had our fill of tall red cliffs.  

Next morning we started tearing up The Plans for real, although we still headed towards Bryce Canyon for what we thought would be 2 nights.

Kolob Canyon
At the north end of Zion we stopped at the visitor center for Kolob Canyon just because, where we met the wonderful woman who set us off The Plan for good and sent us to places much more beautiful than any in the Name Brand Parks.

We had already decided to skip Arches and Canyonlands in favor of Dinosaur National Monument.  Now the nice lady at the Kolob visitor center told us that Bryce is only worth an hour or so, took out a map and a pink highlighter, and drew a line that brought us along the most beautiful scenery in the west.

She sent us over Utah Route 12.  All of it.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

The Grumpy Old Scientist Heads West - Then East

Instead of heading back to school to fight the Forces of Darkness this year, the Grumpy Old Scientist used a family wedding as an excuse to Go West with his Patient Wife.   On our first full day in California, I watched the Sun rise on the edge of the Pacific Ocean.

Oxnard, CA
Brown Pelicans over the Pacific


The day after the wedding, we headed north and east, driving through the Mojave Desert.  We crossed the mountains into the Panamint Valley over narrow switchbacks, driving with white knuckles. 

Then we entered Death Valley.  Returned at last, after 41 years.   It is still the most beautiful place in the world, although the silence and solitude have been lost.  The park was full of visitors from all nations.  Apparently people in Europe think that Death Valley in summer is a challenge.  I have to admit, it was warm.
This was taken at 6:00 PM

So was this

There is a small area of sand dunes
near Stovepipe Wells

We wandered around the valley all afternoon, then after dark we walked out onto the dunes to watch the stars.  A line of thunder storms over the eastern mountain range lit up the night sky.

Zabriskie Point at Sunrise

On our first full day in Death Valley we got up in the dark (only 101 ºF) and watched the Sun rise from Zabriskie Point.  It rained (half a dozen drops).
Sunrise in Death Valley

We saw a lot of sunrises on this trip.

From Zabriskie Point we went to the lowest point in the country, Bad Water.  The ground there was covered with a salty crust.  There is water there, only a few inches below the surface.

We climbed Golden Canyon.

The Patient Wife climbs Golden Canyon
We drove up to Dantes View, a mile above sea level and looked out over the valley.  Another white-knuckle road.

Artists Drive is a twisty road through some of the most amazing geology I have ever seen.  After driving along this canyon I was ruined for much of what I've seen since.

Artist's Drive
After dark, we spent part of our last night in Death Valley several miles down a deserted road, watching shooting stars.  Then, up before the Sun and off to further adventures.  

We had planned out our trip before leaving, but we had decided to talk to the people we met and change plans as we went.  A park ranger suggested that our next stop should be in Nevada, a place called Ash Meadows.  She was right.