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Scientists take a stand against “alternative facts”

“We need to base policy on facts,” says AAAS president Barbara Schaal. AAAS is the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and Schaal spoke at the organization’s annual meeting in Boston this morning. She’ll be giving a major address on the same theme later today.

Schaal’s statement about the need for fact-based barbaraschaal021616policies seems obvious when you think about health care policy, climate change policy, energy policy, education policy, and a host of other areas. Yet, as recent headlines show, many people in the United States’ current government seem to have other views.

Just last month, Kellyanne Conway, an official counselor to U.S. president Donald Trump, went on national television and defended untrue statements by Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer. Conway said Spicer’s untruths were just “alternative facts.”

“When officials use words like ‘alternative facts’ without embarrassment, you know there’s a problem,” says Rush Holt, the chief executive officer for AAAS.

That’s not all.

Trump has said he doesn’t  believe in climate change, and his pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency has said he considers the scientific finding that human activity is contributing to climate change to be a “religious belief.”

The administration and Congress have also taken actions that signal problems for science. Science-based rules have been rescinded. Various lawmakers have announced an intention to axe the Affordable Care Act and replace it with some undefined something. The president has issued executive orders that are keeping scientists from several countries from entering the United States. Other executive orders have laid down arbitrary guidelines that will make any future rulemaking almost impossible. And scientists within some agencies have been given orders not to talk to people outside the agency about their work, which would include journalists and other scientists.

Why worry?

“The case for science is important,” stresses Schaal. Basic scientific research forms the foundation for many things that we depend upon for our well-being: infrastructure, health care, technology, and more. “It’s important to keep that technology pipeline going,” she says. And that “begins with basic research.”

For example, think about how much you rely on GPS to get where you need to go. The basic research that makes that possible began decades earlier.

“We would not be able to have accurate GPS without Einstein’s theory of relativity,” Schaal says. That’s because the technology needs to account for differences in speed between the satellites used for the system, differences in gravity, and so forth.

In short, says Schaal, science is “essential for modern life.”

For basic research to continue, though, funding must continue. And in the United States, a huge chunk of that money comes from government programs. Good scientific research can also continue only when there is a free flow of ideas.

‘Science is international’

“Science is international,” Schaal continues. “Science is science without borders.” When scholars come to the United States from other countries, they add to the scientific knowledge here. And that in turns helps people around the world.

Trump’s executive order, banning people from certain Muslim-majority countries, would frustrate the free flow of ideas and information. That’s one reason why AAAS spoke out against the travel ban when it was issued in January. (A federal appeals court has ruled against the ban, but it’s not yet clear whether Trump will appeal or try another move to reinstate the ban.)

Politics seems to be playing a role, not only in the travel ban, but also in how the administration will shape its policy decisions. Environmental rules that were based upon years of scientific study and that had gone through detailed rulemaking processes were rescinded—apparently for political reasons. Similar signs bode poorly for other crucial protections for health and the environment.

“Climate science is extremely important for the future of nations and the future of the globe,” notes Schaal. Because of that, statements such as Pruitt’s, claiming the findings of mainstream science on climate change are just “religious beliefs,” are especially worrisome.

Another big worry is that the country could be unprepared to deal with a crisis where scientific knowledge and guidance are crucial. The administration has not yet announced science advisors or leaders for various agencies. That could hamper day-to-day rulemaking and policy work. It can also leave the country vulnerable if a catastrophe happened, such as another offshore oil spill or nuclear emergency.

“What we want is for every government to use science to help it make its policies,” Schaal concluded.

Scientists and supporters are heeding the call, and independent work is underway for an April 22 March for Science.

“This march is gaining energy. It is not petering out,” says Holt. “The tee shirts are selling fast.”


French wines could come out ahead among winners and losers from climate change

Climate change creates both winners and losers in ecosystems. It could be disastrous for some species, shrinking their range or leading to the end of some isolated populations of plants or animals. But one upside could be better French wines.

(c) Kathiann M. Kowalski

(c) Kathiann M. Kowalski

In a study published last week, Elizabeth Wolkovich at Harvard University and Benjamin Cook at Columbia University and NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies examined long-term records on French winegrape harvests. “I’m mostly a climate scientist and Lizzie is primarily an ecologist studying plants,” says Cook. “So this particular study was a great way to combine our two disciplines into a really interesting study.”

“I personally became interested in winegrapes since I study phenology,” says Wolkovich. That area of science deals with “the timing of plant and animal events that recur each year, such as leafout or flowering,” she explains. A grape isn’t just a grape, either. “Different varieties (e.g., Pinot Noir versus Cabernet Sauvignon) have incredibly different phenologies and winegrapes have tremendously long records — so both these features drew me to studying winegrapes.”

Those tremendously long records go back more than 300 years, to the 1600s. Those records provided the researchers with lots of data. Also, because climate change takes place over time, the records let the team see how the harvests meshed with different climate trends.

As a general rule, the earlier the harvest was in a particular year, the better the wine would be. For the most part, those early harvests tended to happen in years that were both warm and dry.

Until recently.

Warming trends seem to have broken that link between warmth and low rainfall as a condition for early harvests, the researchers found. That finding was a surprise.

“We are seeing a change in the way drought affects the harvest,” Cook explains. ”Before 1981, you need a hot dry summer to get an early harvest. After, thanks to global warming, you can get hot enough for an early harvest even without a drought.” The team published their research online on March 21 in Nature Climate Change.

So far, the change seems to be good for producing fine French wines. However, there’s no guarantee that the trend will continue. At some point, for example, too much moisture could conceivably affect the vines or the quality of their grapes. Similarly, even if climate change seems to be good for wine grapes in one region, a 2013 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that other wine regions could well suffer as the ecological balance of their area shifts.

Nor does the study mean that climate change is not a problem. Hosts of other studies forecast widespread ecological harm, health consequences and other impacts.

Nonetheless, we can all appreciate and toast good science. And there’s nothing wrong with enjoying a glass of fine wine.

“For white, I’m partial to a nice dry riesling,” Cook says. “For red, I like a peppery cabernet franc.”

“Dry rieslings are great!” says Wolkovich. “I also like red blends, especially ones with interesting varieties.”

A new study published on April 1, 2016, found that climate change could also boost wine production across the English Channel in the United Kingdom, BUT–and you know there would be a BUT, right–there would likely be more susceptibility to weather shocks.
In other words, grape production could grow, but there would also be significant threats from increases in extreme weather events, such as frosts after bud-burst or extra heavy rainfall.
The team at the University of East Anglia writes about its work in the Australian Journal of Grape and Wine Research.

What’s been going on?

While the posts here have been sparse, I’ve nonetheless been busy.

Our family has had a variety of big events and trips. In between, I’ve been tackling a variety of creative cooking adventures, home organizing projects, and sewing endeavors.

On the work front, I’ve had lots of interesting work projects, ranging from the intrigue of state politics and various economic issues to microbiology, neuroscience and environmental issues. I’ve also gotten to go on some extremely intriguing field trip experiences, including a tour of labs at the Cleveland Clinic, an old pig iron blast furnace plant, and a wonderful winter workshop that was put together by the great folks at the Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources.

Things should be getting back to normal now, though, so watch for some really fun columns coming up in the next few weeks.

Meanwhile, if you want to catch up on a few of my other projects over the last few months, check out the following:

Ditching farm pollution—literally.” Science News for Students, April 17, 2015.

Silencing genes—to understand them.” Science News for Students, March 27, 2015.

3-D recycling: Grind, melt, print!Science News for Students, March 24, 2015.

Report finds fault with Ohio pipeline routes for fracked gas.” Midwest Energy News, June 2, 2015.

Net metering going under the microscope in Ohio.” Midwest Energy News, May 18, 2015.

Thanks for your patience! Watch for more original content coming here soon.

The eagles have landed!

Image (c) Kathiann M. Kowalski.

Image (c) Kathiann M. Kowalski.

Something else awesome has been happening in South Bend, Indiana, this week besides the wake and funeral of Notre Dame legend Theodore Hesburgh. And while that something hasn’t had electric signs highlighting where to park, it’s a first-time-in-a-century event.

In short, the eagles have landed!

Drive a few miles north of Notre Dame’s golden dome, turn left off Route 933 and then park by the big barns at St. Patrick’s County Park. In addition to enjoying the excitement of snow shoeing and tubing, you can see the first bald eagle nest in St. Joseph County in over 100 years.

I was privileged to visit the site earlier this week as part of the Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources’ workshop, “Talking Science, Telling Stories: Natural Resource Journalism in the Great Lakes.” Hosted by the University of Notre Dame’s Environmental Change Initiative, the workshop brought together researchers, journalists, field workers and others to explore some of the cutting edge science and conservation challenges presented in and around the Great Lakes region.

St. Patrick’s County Park is host to the Environmental Change Initiative’s Linked Environmental Experimental Ecosystem Facility, or LEEF. The facility pumps groundwater up into a kidney-shaped pond, from which it flows into a stream and wetland. The system can also be configured in different ways to bypass different parts in that chain.

The aim will let researchers design experiments and test hypotheses under controlled conditions. For example, how long does it take DNA to degrade in a freshwater system? Or, what are the impacts of something upstream on downstream habitats?

Using land at the county park provides space that is close to campus but not otherwise readily available in the midst of classroom buildings, a basilica, library and expansive football stadium. The county park location also provides opportunities for public outreach. Those opportunities include teacher programs, field trips and public outreach days. In short, everyone can have a chance to see science in action.

“We wanted an environmentally friendly facility,” park director Evie Kirkwood told us.

The site was so environmentally friendly that it attracted the county’s first bald eagle nest in 100 years. Built from LOTS of twigs and sticks, the nest measures six feet across. After all, bald eagles are big—especially when they spread their wings!

As exciting as the new eagle’s nest is, it adds a few wrinkles to LEEF’s plans. Federal law restricts activities for up to 650 feet from an active nesting site. More stringent limits apply closer in.

If the eagles stay at the nest and make it permanent, the limits will continue to apply. If the birds leave, that would mean fewer restrictions on the new research facility and other park activities. Yet their departure would also deprive visitors of the chance to see bald eagles up close—or at least as close as allowed under federal law.

“The next few weeks will be critical,” said Kirkwood, adding that she was “surprised” more birders hadn’t come out to the park yet to view the bald eagles.

A Rewritable Screen That Stays On—Even When the Power Is Off

Let the power run down completely on your laptop, computer tablet, digital clock or other electronic devices, and the screen goes blank. Basically no power means no image.

That doesn’t have to be the case. A new optically rewritable LCD screen does not need its own power source. Plus, its images can appear in 3-D.

Once an image has been uploaded, the screen “does not need any power, of any kind,” to hold the 3-D image,” says Abhishek Srivastava, whose team of researchers developed the new screen at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Optics Letters published the team’s study on November 1, 2014.

So, how does the new LCD screen work?

LCD stands for liquid crystal display. Material in one or more layers of the display flow like liquid, but have a structure similar to crystals. In general, the material’s structure affects how much light it lets through. LCDs are in screens for many electronic devices.

As with other LCDs, the new screen makes pictures with pixels. Think of them as thousands of tiny dots. The more twisted the structure of the liquid crystal molecules is in a pixel, the more it lights up.

A dye in the top layer of Srivastava’s screen is sensitive to polarized blue light. A flash of that light makes the long molecular axis of the dye rotate in particular ways to form a 3-D image. Anchoring forces caused by the dye then hold the image in place until someone uploads a new one.

One advantage Srivastava notes is that the image is 3-D. Second, he says, “It needs less optical energy to update the image, and it is faster in comparison” to other LCD screens.

Beyond this, he says, “the image resolution can be extremely high,” although the LCD printer that uploads the image could be a practical limitation.

“Last but not least,” Srivastava says, “the power consumption is greatly reduced.”

The new screen could lower energy use for e-book readers, computers, power monitors and other electronic devices. The screen might also be used for rewritable credit cards or ID cards.

Other developments still need to take place before the screens make their way into computer devices, especially those with color and moving images. “Our technology is ready for the gray still image,” Srivastava says. “Hopefully full color might be available by next year.”

In any case, the study is a neat example of how physics, material science and engineering can come together to shine new light on technology.


Original journal source: J. Sun, et al. “Optically rewritable 3D liquid crystal displays.” Optics Letters. Vol. 39, p. 6209, Nov. 1, 2014.



3 Things You Probably Didn’t Know about Turkey

The Merriam’s subspecies of wild turkey. Photo by Dan Garber, Smithsonian Institution.

The Merriam’s subspecies of wild turkey. Photo by Dan Garber, Smithsonian Institution.

This Thanksgiving, millions of Americans will once again head over the river and through the woods—or onto the interstates and jam-packed jets, as the case may be. Millions more will stay home to host family and friends. Most will likely serve turkey. After all, it’s America’s traditional Thanksgiving entrée.

A few months ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing Julie Long, a scientist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service. In the spirit of the Thanksgiving holiday, here are three things Long shared that you probably didn’t know about turkey.

  1. There may no longer be any populations of the wild turkey that was the ancestor of the turkey most Americans will eat this Thanksgiving.

Long and other scientists from USDA, the Netherlands’ Wageningen University, and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute determined that the ancestor of today’s Thanksgiving dinner turkeys was most likely a wild turkey from Mexico.

However, the only place the team could find that turkey was as a preserved specimen at the Smithsonian Institution. And that turkey was genetically distinct from today’s wild turkeys.

“The wild birds that are in North America are not genetically related to the commercial breeds that we eat,” Long says. The team published its findings in BMC Genomics in 2012.

Apparently, early Spanish explorers took the ancestral birds back to Europe. Farmers there developed different breeds. Later, English colonists brought domesticated turkeys with them to Jamestown. So much for a totally “American” tradition.

  1. Although many media photos of live turkeys show brown birds, the turkey on most Americans’ tables this Thanksgiving will have had white feathers.

Brown turkeys are tasty and edible. But they probably wouldn’t look that good to most Americans.

“At the tip of every feather that’s colored, there’s a bit of pigment in the skin,” Long explains.

That pigment causes dark spots on the skin. Rather than educate people about the meat’s wholesomeness, commercial turkey breeders just raise white turkeys instead.

  1. All turkeys for large-scale U.S. commercial operations must be artificially inseminated.

In a quest to get the most white meat per turkey at the lowest cost, farmers have bred turkeys to have “enormous breasts,” says Long. “A male turkey can up to get up to 70 or 80 pounds when they’re mature,” says Long.

However, those big-breasted males “physically can’t get where they need to be,” Long says. As a result, farmers need to help them along with artificial means. Because of poultry’s biology, however, achieving high rates of success is more difficult than it is for mammals.

I’m thankful that Long shared these insights with me, along with lots of other fascinating information for the article I was preparing at the time. That piece should be out this winter.

More generally, I’m grateful for all the patience and courtesies that researchers show to me throughout the year so I can better understand and write about science. And I’m thankful for readers who enjoy this blog, along with my books and articles for a variety of outlets.

Here’s hoping everyone has a blessed and wonderful Thanksgiving!



Sleeping Like a Baby

Photo (c) Kathiann M. Kowalski

Photo (c) Kathiann M. Kowalski

Everyone knows newborn babies sleep a lot. At least, that’s what the books say–although many sleep-deprived parents might disagree. But why?

Scientists have mounting evidence to support the idea that sleep is necessary for effective learning and memory functions. Other research links lack of sleep to increased risks for different types of mental disease.

Now new research adds additional support for the broader idea that researcher Howard Roffwarg and his colleagues suggested as early as 1966–that infant sleep might help in the structural maturation of circuits in the central nervous system.

The new study shows those circuits aren’t limited to those needed for learning and memory. Moreover, the effects of sleep deprivation could last much longer than we think. Amita Sehgal of the University of Pennsylvania presented the research at the Society for Neuroscience’s 2014 annual meeting.

Sehgal first described how fruit flies are a useful model for sleep research. For starters, they’re practical. Fruit flies are cheap to use and breed in large numbers.

Second, fruit flies have many of the same behaviors that mammals do. And yes, fruit flies actually sleep.

Fruit flies have a simpler anatomy than mammals, however. As a result, it’s easier for researchers to do dissections and identify interactions in their central nervous systems.

And beyond all of this, fruit flies are useful for forward genetics work. They have distinct mutant phenotypes with less redundancy and compensation. Modify the genetic makeup, and the fruit fly usually won’t be able to make up for the change with other mechanisms. With these factors in mind, researchers have developed several specific strains of fruit flies to have particular characteristics.

The research team explored how differences in fruit flies’ neurotransmitter levels affected different aspects of sleep, such as difficulty in arousing them from sleep or “rebound” after a period of sleep deprivation.

Researchers also looked at fruit flies’ behavior. In particular, the team found that particular scent pathways that are necessary for effective courtship behavior did not function properly in mature flies if they had been deprived of sleep after being newly hatched.  Sehgal and her colleagues Matthew Kayser and Zhifeng Yue published the research in the journal Science in April 2014.

Last month, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) ranted about NIH funding research “to discover whether or not male fruit flies would like to consort with younger female fruit flies.” Sehgal said yes, her group’s research was what Rand was referring to.

But the study wasn’t about sex, she stressed. And while the study was done with fruit flies, their importance as an animal model means that human researchers can learn a lot from the results.

Bottom line: Much more happens in newborn sleep than we realize. And scientists now have measurable evidence to document some of what’s going on.

Of course, much more work remains to be done. Maybe some of today’s newborns will one day add to the growing body of scientific knowledge and understanding about the brain.

And maybe their parents will get to catch up on some sleep.