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Environmental Scientist

Journal Archives

Luckovich Toon: A Whole New World

Thanks, EU, but Iceland isn’t so keen on joining any more

By Simone Foxman

Iceland is rethinking its desire to become a member of the European Union, putting talks with the European bloc on hold for the time being. Although it had completed about a third of the accession negotiations, polls indicate the Icelandic people don’t want their country to become part of the EU.

In a press conference with Stefan Fule, the Czech official responsible for EU membership, Icelandic Minister for foreign affairs Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson said the decision is all about the people: “This is how democracy works,” he said.

The irony probably isn’t lost on southern Europe, where citizens have pushed back at politicians who pressed ahead with economic austerity handed down by the troika—European leaders, the European Central Bank, and the IMF—to the detriment of their own economies. The IMF admitted last week that some of its decisions were made to help the euro at the expense of Greece, which is in its sixth year of recession.

Iceland is also a painful symbol that Europe’s economic mess may have been handled all wrong. Burdened with an insolvent banking sector and forced to take an IMF bailout, Iceland’s economic situation was, at one time, worse than Greece’s. Its economy contracted sharply in 2009 and 2010, but has since notched decent growth.

“Three or four years ago, our policy measures were probably opposed by most established governmental or financial authorities in Europe. But the end result is that Iceland is now on the road to a much stronger recovery than any other European country that has faced a financial crisis in recent years,” Olafur Grimsson, Iceland’s president, said earlier this year. In particular, Ireland let its banks fail, imposed capital controls, and eschewed austerity measures.


Redwood forest saved from vineyard development

A giant redwood forest in Sonoma County that was on the verge of being divvied up and plowed over into a patchwork of vineyards has been preserved by a public-private partnership that engineered what is being touted as the largest land conservation deal in California history.

The group, led by the nonprofit Conservation Fund, purchased 16,645 acres of forest known as Preservation Ranch, just east of Annapolis, saving the vast ridgetop groves of redwood from being plowed over for vineyards.

The $24.5.million purchase is part of an effort by the fund to eventually preserve more than 125,000 acres of Douglas fir and redwood forest and use sustainable management practices to conserve critical habitat, restore native watersheds and support local economies through “light-touch” timber management.

The ranch, which is 13 times larger than Golden Gate Park and will be renamed Buckeye Forest, is part of an experiment in Northern California in which redwood groves are being preserved and selectively logged in a way that allows the overall forest to grow faster, enabling the owners to gain credits in the state’s emerging carbon market.


Death of Yuri Gagarin demystified 40 years on

After over 40 years of secrecy, the real cause of death of Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space, has been made public. Prominent Russian cosmonaut Aleksey Leonov reveals the truth behind the events of that tragic day.

For over 20 years Aleksey Leonov, the first man to conduct a spacewalk in 1965, has been struggling to gain permission to disclose details of what happened to the legendary Yuri Gagarin in March 1968.

Back then a State Commission established to investigate the accident (which Leonov was a part of), concluded that a crew of MiG-15UTI, Yuri Gagarin and experienced instructor Vladimir Seryogin, tried to avoid a foreign object – like geese or a hot air balloon – by carrying out a maneuver that had led to a tailspin and, finally, collision with the ground. Both pilots died in that test flight.

“That conclusion is believable to a civilian – not to a professional,” Leonov told RT. He has always had a firm stance against the secrecy surrounding Gagarin’s death, and wanted at least his family to know the truth.



First fluorescent protein identified in a vertebrate

Monya Baker
13 June 2013

The Japanese freshwater eel (Anguilla japonica) has more to offer biologists than a tasty sushi snack. Its muscle fibres produce the first fluorescent protein identified in a vertebrate, researchers report in Cell1.

Fluorescent proteins are as standard a tool for cell biologists as wrenches are for mechanics. They do not produce light themselves, but glow when illuminated. The 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded for the discovery and development of such molecules, which are used to tag proteins or to track how genes are expressed. The molecules have been engineered to produce light in a variety of hues and brightnesses, but those discovered until now in nature all came from non-vertebrates, mainly microbes, jellyfish, and corals.

The first clues to the eel protein’s existence came in 2009 when Seiichi Hayashi and Yoshifumi Toda, food chemists studying nutrients in eel at Kagoshima University in Japan, were tracking lipid transport into oily eel tissue and reported that eel muscle fluoresced naturally2 glowing green when a blue light is shone on it. They then isolated a few fragments of the protein responsible. This intrigued Atsushi Miyawaki, a molecular biologist at the RIKEN Brain Science Institute in Wako, Japan, who has identified and engineered new properties into fluorescent proteins from jellyfish and corals.

In the latest work, Miyawaki and his colleagues have identified the gene that codes for the molecule, and have named the new protein UnaG, after unagi, the Japanese word for freshwater eel that is familiar to sushi lovers worldwide.


Is the Earth getting heavier?


Considering that planet Earth is being bombarded with energy from the sun, approximately how much mass does our planet gain from sunlight in say, a million years?

This is a fun question because it connects almost directly (and somewhat surprisingly) with how the Higgs works. We're all familiar with Einstein's great equation, E=mc^2, but the Higgs particle gives mass to others by virtue of the fact that the equation can be inverted:


Just as you can get energy out of annihilating mass, you can also create mass from whole cloth by producing energy. If you pour enough energy into the earth in the form of sunbeams, presumably the earth will get more and more massive, right? Wrong, but to understand why, we need a strict accounting of where all of the energy goes.

The Sun is Falling Apart

As you probably know, the sun is a mass of incandescent gas, a gigantic nuclear furnace. There's no question that the sun is losing mass over time. It radiates at a rate of about about 4x10^26 W. To make that much energy, huge amounts of hydrogen are fused into a huge (but slightly smaller) amount of helium, with a deficit of about 4 billion kilograms every second, or about 370 billion tons a day.



(starts off squirrly, I know, but gets better and more interesting later in the article. )

Canadian study confirms megathrust earthquake is due in Pacific NW


Digging into the soil at the Effingham Inlet in British Columbia, Canadian scientists have confirmed that a city-destroying megathrust earthquake in the Northwest is due.

The Cascadia Subduction Zone running the length of the coast from northern Vancouver Island down to California last slipped and shook the surface of the Earth 300 years ago, and that was just the latest of 22 such quakes in the past 11,000 years.

The scientists, whose work is published in the latest Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences, used a new aging model for identifying and dating disturbed sedimentary layers in a core raised from the inlet.

The disturbances appear to have been caused by large and megathrust earthquakes that have occurred over the past 11,000 years, According to a science news site run by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.


Just thinking about money can make you more evil, researchers say

By Simone Foxman

Money may not be everything, but it’s probably more than you think. In fact, the effects of moolah on the mind are so strong that money can make you a bad person without realizing it.

That’s the conclusion drawn by new research (paywall) from Maryam Kouchaki at Harvard University and Kristin Smith-Crowe of the University of Utah. In four separate studies, they found that people who were first primed with money-related words or images were more likely to make unethical decisions or lie than those who had seen neutral ones. Thoughts about money made the study’s participants more likely to agree to things like hiring a candidate because he had confidential information that could benefit the company, or stealing a ream of paper from their employer for their home printer.

So, pretty much, thinking about or seeing a greenback might make you a Scrooge. “It’s pretty amazing to us that these subtle cues, environmental cues have this big of an effect,” Smith-Crowe told Quartz in an interview. “ were conscious that they were seeing words related to money but they were not conscious that these things were actually affecting their decisions and behavior.”

The study was prompted by a desire to figure out what prompts humans to forsake social bonds in favor of personal interest, Smith-Crowe explains. “When you’re engaged in business, you’re often making decisions based on cost-benefit analysis and you’re thinking about self-interest, which may be the company’s interest. But you’re not really thinking about other things.”


Texas Gov. Rick Perry: Americans have no right to freedom from religion

By Eric W. Dolan

During an announcement of the signing of the so-called “Merry Christmas Bill,” Texas Gov. Rick Perry and state Senator Robert Nichols (R-Jacksonville) said Thursday that freedom from religion was not included in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

“I’m proud we are standing up for religious freedom in our state,” Perry said. “Freedom of religion doesn’t mean freedom from religion.”

The new law states that students and school officials have the right to use religious greetings like “Merry Christmas” and display various religious holiday symbols on school grounds.

“I think it was Thomas Jefferson who said the price of liberty is eternal vigilance,” Nichols remarked. “One of those freedoms is the freedom of speech, freedom of expression, and as the governor was saying the Constitution refers to the freedom of religion, not the freedom from religion.”

“So, challenges to these freedoms that we enjoy can come in a lot of different ways,” the state senator continued. “They can come in very large ways like the war on terror or our freedoms can be taken away in small ways like the removal of a Christmas tree from a classroom.”



Thank the FSM this nut didn't become president.

Exoplanet formation surprise: Evidence of farthest planet forming from its star

This graphic shows a gap in a protoplanetary disk of dust and gas whirling around the nearby red dwarf star TW Hydrae, which resides 176 light-years away in the constellation Hydra, sometimes called the Sea Serpent.

A team of researchers has discovered evidence that an extrasolar planet may be forming quite far from its star—- about twice the distance Pluto is from our Sun. The planet lies inside a dusty, gaseous disk around a small red dwarf TW Hydrae, which is only about 55 percent of the mass of the Sun. The discovery adds to the ever-increasing variety of planetary systems in the Milky Way. The research is published in the Astrophysical Journal.

Astronomers using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope have found compelling evidence of a planet forming 7.5 billion miles away from its star, a finding that may challenge current theories about planet formation.

Of the almost 900 planets outside our solar system that have been confirmed to date, this is the first to be found at such a great distance from its star. The suspected planet is orbiting the diminutive red dwarf TW Hydrae, a popular astronomy target located 176 light-years away from Earth in the constellation Hydra the Sea Serpent.

Hubble's keen vision detected a mysterious gap in a vast protoplanetary disk of gas and dust swirling around TW Hydrae. The gap is 1.9 billion miles wide and the disk is 41 billion miles wide. The gap's presence likely was caused by a growing, unseen planet that is gravitationally sweeping up material and carving out a lane in the disk, like a snow plow.


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