March 29, 2010
NASA is usually a master of the art of self promotion, which is why I’m a bit perplexed by this page of downloadable posters promoting NASA manned space missions. The most innocuous ones are simply boring, with proud astronauts grouped in front of a space shuttle or some stars. (No one looks good in an orange space suit, but that’s the uniform.) What I’m talking about, though, are the posters where NASA is trying to be “creative.” Who thought that giving everyone bright blue hair was a good idea? Or referencing Rat Pack promotional posters from the 1960s? Or dressing up the team as characters from The Matrix:
Or Star Trek:
Or Reservoir Dogs (at least it didn’t cost much; all they had to buy for this photo shoot were a few pairs of sunglasses):
Most perplexing to me, though, is this poster for the upcoming May mission to the International Space Station:
Who wants these posters? I can’t see little kids who dream of being astronauts wanting to hang these up on their bedroom walls. And if I was in one of these missions, I would be more than a little embarrassed by some of them. So why is NASA spending time and money on this? Or am I just not getting the joke?
March 1, 2010
Living organisms are a great place to store carbon. Trees are the most common organisms to be used as carbon sinks, but other things might be even better. Whales are particularly good for this because they are large—blue whales are the largest animals on Earth—and when they die, they sink to the bottom of the ocean taking the carbon with them and keeping it out of the atmosphere where it would contribute to climate change.
Killing those whales, though, prevents all that carbon from being stored at the bottom of the ocean, whether the whale is turned into lamp oil, as it was a hundred years ago, or consumed as dinner, like in Japan today.
University of Maine marine scientist Andrew Pershing calculated that about 110 million tons of carbon has been released from the past 100 years of whaling (not counting the emissions from the boats used to hunt the whales). And while there are far bigger sources of carbon, such as our cars, whaling has released about as much carbon as deforesting much of New England would.
There has been some discussion lately of discontinuing the ban on commercial whaling (a ban that Japan, Iceland and Norway already ignore). The value of whales as a carbon sink, though, is a new enough idea that it hasn’t yet made it into those talks. But Pershing suggested at a recent scientific meeting that a system of carbon credits could be developed to raise funds to protect whales and other large oceanic predators. As he explained to BBC News, “These are huge and they are top predators, so unless they’re fished they would be likely to take their biomass to the bottom of the ocean [when they die].”
February 3, 2010
Would you pay for a plastic or paper bag to haul your groceries home? On January 1, residents of Washington, D.C., began paying five cents for every one of these bags when shopping at stores that sell food, including grocery stores and carry-out restaurants. The alternative: bring your own.
Washington is not the first place to institute a bag tax or ban. Ireland did so in 2002, charging 15 cents per plastic grocery bag (the price has since risen). Their bag consumption dropped by 90 percent in a year. China prohibited shops from providing plastic bags to customers for free and banned super-thin plastic bags entirely in 2008 (reducing usage by 66 percent in a year), and Kenya and Uganda have also banned the bags. The head of the United National Environment Programme has even called for a global ban. (A UNEP report calls plastic “the most prevalent component of marine debris, [which] poses hazards because it persists so long in the ocean, degrading into tinier and tinier bits that can be consumed by the smallest marine life at the base of the food web.”)
In the United States, proposals to tax or ban bags have had uneven success. San Francisco became the first U.S. city to ban plastic bags in 2007, and a ban will go into effect in Los Angeles later this year. And the Swedish home store Ikea began charging 5 cents per disposable bag back in 2007 and encouraging shoppers to purchase reusable blue bags. But a bag tax was rejected in Seattle and Baltimore, as was a bag ban in Philadelphia.
Not surprisingly, the plastics industry is not a fan of these taxes and bans. They say that these programs do not reduce plastic usage and that people turn to paper as an alternative thinking it’s greener when it’s not. (Washington taxes both kinds of bags, so that’s not really an issue here.)
Here in Washington, reaction to the tax has been a mixed bag (if you’ll excuse the pun). Store owners are still figuring out how to institute the tax. And some people are so annoyed they say they’ll drive to Virginia to buy groceries, likely spending more money on gas and sales tax than they would on the bag tax. Others are pleased by a program that will reduce bag usage and provide much needed money to clean up our poor polluted Anacostia River (a third of the river’s trash is plastic bags).
I’ve been carrying around a nylon grocery bag, one that folds into a little pouch, in my purse for the past couple of years. I didn’t like how many plastic bags I was throwing away and found the reusable bag a great alternative for most of my shopping, as I tend to buy in small quantities. And now, when I need a paper bag to collect my recyclables or some plastic bags for pet waste, I don’t mind shelling out a few nickles; it’s going to a good cause.
It’s not as if we haven’t made do without paper and plastic bags in the past—my mother still hangs onto my great-grandmother’s wicker shopping baskets. However, the biggest benefit of these measures might be in our heads, helping to change people’s mindsets and get them thinking about the little ways to alter their lives and keep the planet cleaner.
January 22, 2010
Yasuní National Park, in the Ecuadorian Amazon, is one of the most biodiverse places on the planet, according to scientists who recently completed a study examining the park’s plant and animal populations. A single hectare (2.47 acres) of land, for example, contains 655 tree species, more than you would find in all of the continental United States and Canada. Even more impressive, that hectare would contain around 100,000 different insect species (such as the spiny-headed katydid, Panacanthus cuspidatus, seen above).
The scientists aren’t certain why the biodiversity of Yasuní is so high, but several factors, including its location at the intersection of the equator, Andes and Amazon, certainly contribute. But there is reason to worry that this biodiversity may not last. The park is isolated from other protected areas in the region, of which there are few. And despite its designation as a national park, oil extraction, along with the building of access roads, has been permitted in places. The biggest threat to Yasuní and its biodiversity is probably oil, the scientists say. Ecuador’s second-largest field of untapped oil lies under the northeastern section of the park. The Ecuadorian government has proposed a plan to keep that oil off-limits from development, but lack of funding threatens the government’s plans.
Check out the entire collection of Pictures of the Week on our Facebook fan page.
(Photo credit: Bejat McCracken. H/T Eurekalert)
October 29, 2009
Around the country, people are lining up to be vaccinated against the H1N1 flu virus. Surprising Science has spent the last three days discussing the history and science of vaccines (see A Brief History and How Vaccines Work, Success Stories, and A History of Vaccine Backlash). Today we answer some of the more common questions about the swine flu vaccine.
Who should get the H1N1 flu vaccine?
There is currently not enough vaccine for everyone who wants it. Vaccines take time to produce and this one has been rolling off the line for just a few weeks. As of Tuesday there were about 22.4 million doses available around the United States. The goal is to have 250 million doses by the end of flu season next spring. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have recommended that certain groups get vaccinated first:
- pregnant women
- people who live with or care for children under six months of age
- young people age six months to 24 years
- people 25 to 64 who are at higher risk for flu complications due to a health condition or compromised immune system
- health care and emergency medical service personnel
Why are these groups first?
Pregnant women and young people seem to be especially vulnerable to the H1N1 virus. Babies under six months of age cannot be vaccinated, so it is important to limit their exposure to the virus by vaccinating people who care for them. People with certain health conditions or who have a compromised immune system have a higher risk of having serious flu complications if they get the flu. And medical personnel are the people most likely to come in contact with the virus.
What if I’m not in one of these groups?
Wait your turn. There will be enough vaccine eventually. And if you get the H1N1 flu, it won’t be fun but also probably won’t do you long-term harm. In the meantime, the CDC recommends taking everyday preventative actions like hand washing and avoiding contact with sick people. (And if you get sick, please stay home.)
Is the vaccine safe?
The H1N1 vaccine is made the same way as the seasonal flu vaccine. The manufacturers just tweaked the recipe with the new virus. The Food and Drug Administration approved the vaccine in September. People with allergies to chicken eggs, however, should not be vaccinated as eggs are used to make the vaccine.
I got a seasonal flu vaccine last month. Why won’t that work against H1N1?
For the same reason that your flu vaccine from last year doesn’t protect you from this year’s seasonal flu: There are many different types of flu virus, and they mutate over time. When you are exposed to one type, your body’s immune system learns to protect you from that type only. The others are too different to register with your immune system as the same virus.
I’ve heard that in other countries the vaccine contains squalene. What is it and why is it in their vaccine and not ours? And what about thimerosal?
Squalene is a type of naturally-occurring oil found in plants and animals (including humans). Squalene is a component of some adjuvants of vaccines. Adjuvants help a vaccine’s effectiveness by boosting the immune response. Some countries have added the squalene-containing adjuvant to their vaccine mix for H1N1 because it causes a lower dose of vaccine to be effective; that is, it will allow people to get more doses out of the same batch of vaccine. The World Health Organization has found no evidence of any adverse events in vaccines containing the squalene adjuvant.
The United States government chose not to use any adjuvants in the H1N1 mix in this country. However, some formulations of the vaccine do contain thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative that has been used in vaccines for decades. Getting mercury injected into your body may sound a little scary. But concerns about safety of thimerosal are unfounded. Some parents worry that thimerosal may cause autism in young children, but there is no evidence of this. Several studies in recent years have examined the possibility, but no association has ever been found.