February 20, 2009
Back in the day, when I was studying ecology as an undergrad, I learned about the giant kelp forests off the coast of California because they are home to a keystone species, the ever adorable sea otter. The sea otters like to feast on sea urchins. But when there aren’t enough of the cute little marine mammals, the sea urchins run rampant, feasting on the giant kelp. Unchecked, the sea urchins can destroy an entire forest.
Why is that bad? The Monterey Bay Aquarium explains the importance of the giant kelp:
Giant kelp is harvested as a source of algin, an emulsifying and binding agent used in the production of many foods and cosmetics, like ice cream, toothpaste and cereals.
Pieces of decomposing kelp (detritus) sink to the depths of the ocean, providing food for deep sea creatures.
Giant kelp has a multitude of inhabitants. Invertebrates graze on the blades, fish seek shelter in the fronds and thousands of invertebrates live in the holdfast—such as brittle stars, sea stars, anemones, sponges and tunicates.
The National Marine Sanctuaries program has created an online media library with plenty of photos of kelp and other marine treasures, such as sea lions, as well as some truly devastating pictures of the human impacts on the oceans.
Credit: Steve Lonhart / Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary
February 19, 2009
One of the big themes of this year’s AAAS meeting was—you guessed it— Charles Darwin. It seemed like every session’s chairperson was obliged to mention Darwin’s 200th birthday, and some scientists even sounded like they were channeling him at a seance.
Scientists have been talking about Darwin’s finches and orchids and barnacles for a solid 150 years now, but the focus this year was on Darwin’s humans. Specifically, why humans are emotional, social and even moral beings. Here’s Darwin on the origins of human communities, in The Descent of Man:
It has often been assumed that animals were in the first place rendered social, and that they feel as a consequence uncomfortable when separated from each other, and comfortable whilst together; but it is a more probable view that these sensations were first developed, in order that those animals which would profit by living in society, should be induced to live together. …For with those animals which were benefited by living in close association, the individuals which took the greatest pleasure in society would best escape various dangers; whilst those that cared least for their comrades and lived solitary would perish in greater numbers.
At the conference, there were presentations on “The Evolution of Emotion and Emotional Expressions in Humans and Other Primates,” “The Evolution of Human Social Cognition,” “The Origins of Complex Societies in Primates and Humans,” and many others along this line. As Barbara King of the College of William and Mary pointed out, people study great apes and other primates to get clues about how our shared ancestors behaved to each other, and even what emotions they felt. “We wouldn’t be humans if ancient apes hadn’t been deeply emotional and social,” she says.
All evolutionary theorizing aside, the best part about attending these types of talks is that you get to see fun film clips of chimps or gorillas or orangutans playing or fighting with one another—basically, apes going ape. This one is from King’s work at the National Zoo. Here’s how she describes it:
When a conflict breaks out between a silverback and a blackback male, the family members (not biological but social family members) literally line up in support of the younger male. The juvenile male…even tries to intervene, only to be swatted away effortlessly. We see emotion here: not just on the screaming nervous face of the blackback (I should add, the defecating and screaming blackback) [Ed. note: you're not having computer problems; the video has no audio], who shows his fear even as he refuses to do what the silverback wants him to do—but also in the ways that the social bonds become visible to us in the apes’ actions.
February 18, 2009
Since I was in Chicago this past weekend (Laura and I attended the AAAS annual meeting—we wrote about fembots, the 1000th Steve, origami, and award-winning science journalism), I took the opportunity to go up to the top of the Sears Tower. As I gazed out over the city, looking down on the roofs of buildings hundreds of feet below, all I could think about was the expanse of unused space—acres of square footage (rooftops) that could be filled with solar panels and greenery.
It turns out that I am, thankfully, not the first person to have had these thoughts about the Windy City. The Chicago Green Roof and Cool Roof Grants Program has been handing out funds for creating green roofs since 2005.
Green roofs have several benefits:
• Clean and retain rainwater
• Reduce ‘Urban Heat Island Effect’ (overheating of cities in summer which contributes to pollution and increased energy consumption)
• Add beauty to our urban landscape
• Help lower air temperatures
• Improve air quality for everyone
• Lower heating and cooling bills
• Extend the life of the roof membrane (2 to 3 times!)
Chicago should be commended for their environmental efforts (the city’s Department of Environment Web site has information on other projects, such as Chicago Green Homes), but I could see from the Sears Tower that they still have a long way to go.
February 15, 2009
This weekend, fellow blogger Sarah and I are writing from the AAAS Annual Meeting in Chicago.
If you ever get a chance to attend an AAAS meeting, by all means, go. It’s basically a greatest hits of science conference. The scientists are under orders to make their talks comprehensible to a non-specialist audience (some are better at this than others), and the organizers pick some of the most charismatic, entertaining, and even sometimes hammy speakers. Smithsonian readers will be familiar with some of this year’s rock stars: Svante Paabo, Sean B. Carroll, Neil Shubin, Lene Vestergaard Hau, and many others.
The meeting draws hundreds of science writers from around the world. One of the highlights for us is the AAAS Science Journalism Awards ceremony. It’s always held at a great venue: when the meeting was in Seattle, they rented out the Music Experience Project; in St. Louis we partied at the Gateway Arch. This year’s event was held at the Art Institute of Chicago. (Well, in a tent out back–a heated tent. We did get to see their new Edvard Munch exhibit, though. That guy had some issues.)
Congratulations to this year’s winners! I highly recommend the broadcast winner, Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial, about the Dover School Board “if we call creationism a ‘science,’ we can teach it in science class” case.
And do check out the online winner, Megafishes, even though it was produced by Smithsonian.com’s arch-nemesis, National Geographic News. (I’m not complaining–I was on the judging panel that recommended this package for the award.) It’s about some of the biggest and most utterly absurd fish in the world.
This weekend, blog overseer Laura and I are writing from the AAAS Annual Meeting in Chicago.
The press briefing began with four scientists gazing upwards. This would normally be odd, but when the scientists are all experts in origami and the ceiling looks like folded paper, not so much. “We’re just going to stare at the ceiling,” quipped Erik Demaine, of the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.
They quickly got down to business, though. I already knew about one of the speakers–Robert Lang, an artist who tinkers in math, as he put it–because we profiled him in “Into the Fold” in 2007. He may call himself an artist, but he’s gone beyond that to help design solar arrays and heart stents that unfold.
But it was Demaine that caught my interest. He explores the world of origami from both the math and the art sides (he has even created origami art with his father that has been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art). Among the pieces he brought along for show and tell was a square that had been folded in concentric squares (you can try this at home) so that it automatically formed into a hyperbolic paraboloid. When he explored the shape mathematically, looking at the regions between the creases, he found that it doesn’t exist. In the mathematical sense, at least. “That was a surprise,” Demaine said. There must be little creases in the paper that can’t be seen, he explained, because the math says that the paper couldn’t otherwise get into the hyperbolic paraboloid shape with just his origami folds.