September 30, 2011
Fall is one of the most photogenic times of year, a good time to be on the lookout for subjects for Smithsonian Magazine’s Photo Contest. The leaves are changing, migratory birds are flying south and absurd produce is being harvested (read all about thousand-pound-plus pumpkins).
One of the finalists in the Natural World category from our 8th Annual Photo Contest is from photographer James Kasher. He explains how he got the shot, taken off of the island of Bonaire in the Netherlands Antilles:
As I was swimming above the pristine reef, I noticed an isolated anemone that had stunning purple tips. As I got closer I became mesmerized with its beauty and texture. Upon closer inspection I noticed a few anemone shrimp tucked away near the bottom of the anemone fingers. Every so often they would move and reposition themselves in different areas.
A few moments later one appeared on the very top of one of the highest fingers. It grasped the tip in what appeared to be a moment of victory: King of the Hill.
If you’ve caught your own moment of victory (or defeat) on film, enter our 9th Annual Photo Contest. The deadline is December 1.
July 7, 2011
Dangers come in so many forms, and it’s tough to compare countries by overall risk. China and Haiti have suffered devastating earthquakes; Indonesia and Japan have been inundated by tsunamis; Sierra Leone has the highest rate of malaria deaths; and mudslides, tornadoes, hurricanes and floods strike many parts of the world. But for sheer variety and drama of natural disasters, it’s hard to top Iceland.
Iceland is pretty much the least habitable of all the places that people have inhabited. But it’s a great place to visit, and I just returned from a vacation there. (I apologize for the periods of radio silence on Surprising Science over the past two weeks, by the way; Sarah was sick and I was out of town. She’s on the mend and will be back soon.) Iceland was the most spectacular place I’ve ever seen—I felt like I was like hiking through a geology textbook. It has glaciers, volcanoes, fjords, geysers, mud pots, lava fields, lava tubes, flood plains and waterfalls. Most spectacularly, it’s one of the only places where you can walk along the mid-Atlantic rift, the seam where the European and North American plates are separating (the rest of the rift is under the Atlantic Ocean).
But geologic activity has consequences. Iceland’s volcanoes are its most famous natural threat—Eyjafjallajökull erupted last summer and shut down air traffic over most of Europe for about a week. The Laki eruption in 1783 killed one-fifth of Iceland’s population and thousands more in other parts of Europe. The eruption of Hekla in 1104 covered half of the island with fallout and gave the mountain the reputation as the gateway to hell. In 1963, an offshore volcano created a new island, Surtsey. In 1973, firefighters pumped water onto a lava flow to save the harbor on the island of Heimaey.
Not all volcanoes spew ash and lava directly into the air or land. Some are covered with glaciers… which only compounds the problem. Icelandic has a word, “jökulhlaups” to describe a catastrophic flood caused by a volcano melting a glacier or ice cap from beneath. Iceland’s southern coast is one wide flood plain of debris washed away by jökulhlaups.
The earthquakes generally aren’t as strong as those along other fault zones, but they’re frequent, shallow and damaging. A quake in 1974 dropped a chunk of land six feet down; it filled with water, turned into a lake and flooded a farm. Another earthquake cracked the bottom of a lakebed and drained the water away.
Lava regularly erupts from volcanoes and fissures, burying towns and farms. You can hike along a 1984 lava field, practically still steaming, and plenty of craters (also named for hell) at Krafla. Shifting glacial runoff buried farms at Skaftafell, now the site of a fantastic national park. During the little Ice Age, glaciers devoured entire towns; today towns are more likely to be swept away by avalanches or covered in volcanic ash.
I really hated to leave the place, especially because it looks like Hekla is starting to rumble….
June 23, 2011
We’re big fans of science humor here at Surprising Science HQ. Some of the funniest, most innovative new comics have a science angle, whether it’s dinosaur spokescharacters, grad students toiling in a lab or stick figures with sophisticated math skills. We keep this poster in our time machine, earn our badges, celebrate the IgNobel Prize winners and encourage educators to teach the controversy. And, of course, although it’s a non-denominational blog, we’re Pastafarians at heart.
One of my favorite new (to me) examples of humor as a form of release from scientific tension comes from Will Walker, now a post-doc at the McLaughlin Research Institute for the Biomedical Sciences in Montana. He has a series of mock-motivational posters [update: you must log on to Facebook to see them, apologies!] that capture the absurdity of lab work. (They’re akin to the “Demotivators” from Despair, Inc. that you may be familiar with. My favorite is a photo of a sinking ship titled: “MISTAKES. It could be that the purpose of your life is only to serve as a warning to others.”) Here’s where Will’s poster inspiration came from:
I was in the throes of my dissertation research at Cornell University. As a baby scientist, I was super excited to test a great idea I thought I’d had, but I was learning for the first time about all the gremlins that stand between the researcher and The Answer. It’s just the nature of science, really: since you’re trying to extend the boundary of the known, there’s necessarily a lot of inefficient fumbling around with things you barely understand. Still, troubleshooting all the problems that pop up at the lab bench can feel like fighting a multi-headed hydra of experiment failure, so you have to find ways to manage your frustration during the rough patches. There’s no class in grad school to teach you this, but it’s a huge part of the mental equipment you end up acquiring. The posters were part of a conscious effort to maintain a little space for humor between me and my frustrations: I found it was easier to keep banging my head against the wall if I could do it with a modicum of ironic detachment. (An earlier part of my self-prescribed frustration therapy was to buy a sledgehammer and a pile of cinder blocks to smash, but that got expensive after a while. Making posters was cheaper!)
What are your own favorite science humor sites? Please share them in the comments.
May 5, 2011
The United Nations announced this week that the world population is expected to reach 10 billion by the end of the century—and then just keep on growing (more details in the pdf). That’s a big increase from the previous estimate of a peak of 9 billion that would then stabilize or shrink.
Science magazine has a helpful Q&A that explains where these 1 billion previously unanticipated people of the future come from. Some of it is good news: fewer people are dying from AIDS than expected. Some less so: many family planning programs were abandoned in the past 20 years.
The new report is awash in data; it can be broken down by fertility and mortality models, age range and country. Like anyone who uses Google Earth for the first time, I immediately looked for home: the U.S. population should reach almost half a billion by 2099. That’s a lot of people, but the new numbers don’t really change the predictions for U.S. demographics in 2050 that Joel Kotkin made in Smithsonian magazine last year. That story was pretty optimistic: growth is better than decline; technology will make life better; immigrants will revitalize American culture. Here’s a taste:
Political prognosticators say China and India pose the greatest challenges to American predominance. But China, like Russia, lacks the basic environmental protections, reliable legal structures, favorable demographics and social resilience of the United States. India, for its part, still has an overwhelmingly impoverished population and suffers from ethnic, religious and regional divisions. The vast majority of the Indian population remains semiliterate and lives in poor rural villages. The United States still produces far more engineers per capita than India or China.
One of the least anticipated developments in the nation’s 21st-century geography will be the resurgence of the region often dismissed by coastal dwellers as “flyover country.” For the better part of the 20th century, rural and small-town communities declined in percentage of population and in economic importance. In 1940, 43 percent of Americans lived in rural areas; today it’s less than 20 percent. But population and cost pressures are destined to resurrect the hinterlands. The Internet has broken the traditional isolation of rural communities, and as mass communication improves, the migration of technology companies, business services and manufacturing firms to the heartland is likely to accelerate.
In discussing population growth, there’s a perpetual tension between economists (who consider an ever-expanding economy and workforce the greatest good) on one side and geologists, population biologists and environmentalists on the other (who point out that resources are limited, and in some cases we’re reaching the limit). The most immediate challenge posed by an increasing population, even today and certainly by mid-century or beyond, will be feeding all of these people.
April 28, 2011
Congratulations to Sarah! The D.C. Science Writers Association presented her with its Newsbrief Award this weekend for her Surprising Science post “Rare Earth Elements Not Rare, Just Playing Hard to Get.”
The award is the only one of its kind for science writing. Other awards recognize long or investigative or multi-part stories. But most of what writers write—and most of what readers read, especially online—is short pieces.
The idea for the award came in part from Christine Dell’Amore, a former Smithsonian intern who now works for a publishing company called National something-or-other… Geographic, that’s it. She says Sarah “impressed the judges with her entertaining, well-researched and educational article.”
Sarah says her story started with a question: Just why does China have so much control over the world’s supply of rare earth elements? When she couldn’t find an easy answer, she answered the question herself. As in so many of her posts for Surprising Science, she took on an important, timely, complex topic and covered it with efficiency, humor, clarity and pizzazz.