Monday, July 5, 2010

Scientia Pro Publica, 34th Edition - July 5th, 2010

Welcome to an interesting and eclectic collection of wonderful science writing. Enjoy these observations of science, nature, and humanity brought to you by Scientia Pro Publica, the blog carnival promoting science writing for the public. And please remember to leave a comment to let the authors know you visited and what you thought of their contribution.

We begin with Bob O'Hara, from Deep Thoughts and Silliness, bringing us a thoughtful review of the book, Elegance in Science: The Beauty of Simplicity, by Ian Glynn. You all know as well as Bob that the conventional wisdom puts great scientific stock in simplicity, not without good reason. Might even have something to do with the popularity of Occam's Razor, but does Ian Glynn explain why simplicity makes for elegant science? Bob's Book Review: Elegance in Science gives us an answer, and of course, a question.

Next comes a little-known biographic detail about Sir Isaac Newton, who apparently dabbled in a greater variety of intellectual pursuits than most of us thought. Romeo Vitelli sheds light on Newton's ventures into alchemy and theology at Providentia with his contribution entitled Newton's Revelation.

Several contributions involve nature and the environment. First, Ninjameys continues to fulfill his pledge to raise the profile of the lesser-known but still important species threatened with extinction by completing Parts 4 and 5 of his twelve-part Endangered Species 2010 Series: Dicotyledons (Part 1) and Dicotyledons (Part 2). We also get a bonus this time around with Plants and Fungi Map showing the geographic location of each of the species described in Parts 1 through 5! Parts 1, 2, and 3 included fungi and bryophytes; club mosses, quillworts, ferns, and red algae; as well as conifers, cycads, and monocots. Although I am partial to plants, Ninjameys' mission includes critically endangered species from twelve different taxonomic categories populating IUCN's Red List 2010, so the animal-lovers among us have much to look forward to.

Bridget Nicholson submitted 10 Biggest Health Dangers Behind the Oil Spill, where you will find the health dangers categorized as either "Right Now" or "In the Future", a useful dichotomy given that the effects are being felt at the moment, but will also be with us for a long time to come. Has this oil disaster prompted anyone else to wonder what might be the nuclear power industry's equivalent to the oil industry's "blind shear ram" that failed so appallingly beneath the Deepwater Horizon platform?

Birds, especially ravens, are noted for their intelligence. Now, as suggested in a research study reviewed by Grrlscientist in Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted), ravens may exhibit empathy. The study, by Orlaith Fraser and Thomas Bugnyar at the University of Vienna, involved 13 ravens observed interacting with each other over a nearly two-year time period. The key interactions were conflicts (chase flights, hitting, or forced retreats), and an affiliative, or consoling, behavior characterized by "contact sitting, preening or beak-to-beak or beak-to-body touching. Examine the evidence as described by Grrrlscientist and judge for yourself whether or not Distressed Ravens Show That Empathy Is For The Birds, Too

Human health and behavior is a focus of three contributions. In Unmaking the Disease (Part 1),
Romeo Vitelli begins a brief history of the study of homosexuality. Part 1 concludes with the first of the dissenters from the conventional wisdom of their day, Alfred Kinsey and Evelyn Hooker. We await Parts 2 and 3 where Romeo promises to describe the scientific community's removal of the disease label from homosexuality.

Mind over matter oversimplifies the findings of a study Faith Martin reviews on Highlight HEALTH. Relating how a patient thinks about their illness to their emotional and physical well-being makes for interesting advice for healthcare providers and anyone who knows someone with a chronic affliction. How Your Head Can Influence Your Heart offers valuable insight with relevance far beyond those concerned with cardiac care.

Our favorite 360 Degree Skeptic challenges readers to find the flaws in a study he reviews entitled "Greater religiosity during adolescence may protect against developing problem alcohol use." In Spot the Flaws: Unpacking the Religion Variable skeptic Andrew Bernardin suggests we examine the validity of the conclusions of the study, and includes a link to the original report as well, if you need it to help identify any scientific and/or logical error(s).

Finally, we venture to the outer limits with John at Kind of Curious, who is reading "The Varieties of Scientific Experience" by Carl Sagan. John introduces us to a fine opportunity to participate in one of Carl Sagan's passions, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). In Searching for Aliens, John describes how the SETI@home project encourages ordinary citizens to donate spare processing power from their Internet-connected home computers to assist with the search for ET. Best of all, John reports that "If your computer is the one that finds ET, you get named as a co-discoverer." Be careful what you wish for!

Thursday, July 1, 2010


The behavior of oil in deep water is a subject few of us thought about until very recently. However, the oil industry has thought about it before this year. In June of 2000, the Minerals Management Service (part of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA) contracted with SINTEF and ChevronTexaco to explore just what would happen if there were an oil well blowout in deep water (see Project "Deep Spill"). In this planned experiment off the coast of Norway, "mixtures of crude oil and natural gas, diesel oil and natural gas, ... were released at approximately 800 meters water depth." On page 150 of their final report of that project, in a section entitled "Further Research", a paragraph begins with the following interesting observation.

"Prior to the sea trial, there were some doubts about whether the oil would reach the sea surface. It apparently did so during these experiments, but if the size of the oil droplets formed at the exit had been sufficiently small, the oil might not have surfaced."

Recent observations in the Gulf of Mexico of an unplanned experiment releasing a large quantity of oil at a depth of 1,500 meters suggest that a significant quantity of the oil has not reached the surface. Given that a large volume of oil dispersants have been intentionally added at the site of the Deepwater Horizon blowout, and that oil dispersants are designed and applied specifically to make the oil break up into smaller droplet sizes, one might anticipate that a significant portion of the oil released in the BP blowout would not reach the surface.

So it is more than a little surprising that BP's chief executive would, weeks after the blowout took place, be so ill-informed about the behavior of oil in deep water as to belittle claims that plumes of oil might exist beneath the surface of the Gulf of Mexico.

A key purpose of adding the dispersants is to make the oil break up into smaller droplets so that bacteria and physical action can break it down before it can harm wildlife or coastal habitats. It appears that these smaller droplets also keep a portion of the oil from surfacing, perhaps a good thing for plants along the coast, though maybe not so good for plankton and fish living out in the Gulf.

In any event, it should come as no surprise that scientists observing the spill find plumes of oil under the surface (see USF, and UGA). Oil experts discovered that could happen in an experiment almost 10 years ago, see Deep Spill Technical Report.