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Volcano Alert

(From WIRED Magazine, December 2013)

With more than 30 active volcanoes, Iceland is one of the most tectonically active spots on Earth, and each eruption has the potential to send all of Europe into an economic tailspin. (Remember how ­Eyjafjallajökull shut down air traffic over the continent in 2010?) So a coalition of 100 European and US scientists calling itself Future­Volc has been working to get ahead of the problem. With Freysteinn Sigmundsson, a geophysicist at the University of Iceland, they’ve been covering the country with monitoring devices in an effort to use the data to scout signs of an impending eruption. Here’s a look at the new system.

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Betting Big on Precision Ag

(From Modern Farmer, March 2014)

Seed planting is a bit of a crapshoot. For centuries farmers have been relying on the smallest tidbits of information about the makeup of their soil – trusting one field is a better producer than another, but not understanding necessarily why. It has worked for generations. But it hasn’t been an ideal situation for optimizing every inch of a field.

That’s going to change, as John Deere and Monsanto square off for an Apple vs. Google-style battle. The result? Farm gear so high-tech a farmer from the 1920s would barely recognize it.

It’s hard to believe, but seed planting has remained much the same for the last century. To understand their fields and where to plant, farmers have relied on historical documentation. From the 1940s up until the 1970s, universities and the USDA sent members of their agronomy departments (sometimes students) out to local farms. These farm scientists would walk through the fields with an aluminum tube that had a sharp point on one end. Picking about fifteen key places in each field (depending on its size), the agronomist would push the tube into the soil and collect a sample. Back at the lab, the samples would be analyzed and the field would then be mapped, on paper, detailing the chemistry of each field.

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How NASA Is Trying to Help California Survive Its Water Crisis

(From Popular Mechanics, February 2014)

California is in the middle of one of the worst droughts in recorded history. Things have gotten so serious that this Thursday the state legislature attempted to ease the pain by passing a $687 million relief plan for drought-stricken communities. Even NASA has stepped in to lend its space- and sky-based science, hoping to assist the state’s Department of Water Reclamation with deciding where to dole out its water reserves and identify the areas in most need of aid. 

Jeanine Jones, interstate water resources manager at California’s DWR, says that for water managers who operate the state’s dams and aqueducts, understanding the extent of the current drought is very important. “We make lots of different kinds of decisions about how to operate facilities, to supply water, to minimize flood risk, and to do long-term water planning for the entire state,” she says. 

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Women Are Taking Back Beer

(From LadyBits on Medium, February 2014)

Men and beer have gone together for ages. Beer is crafted by men in factories owned by men, sold to men, and consumed by men.

But women love beer, too. They make up one-quarter of U.S. beer consumption by volume, according to the Beverage Media Group. And the number of women who love beer is slowly growing. The craft brewing industry has allowed them to find new brands and flavors. According to a consumer survey called the Alcoholic Beverage DemandTracker, the percent of women who name beer as their favorite beverage grew from 26 percent in 2012 to 28 percent in 2013. That stat may seem low, but it’s kind of remarkable considering that beer is only ever marketed to men.

And women love brewing too. For a long time, the only way they’ve been able to show it is through small-batch home brewing in their kitchens. Women who have wanted to turn their craft into a career say they’ve had their male counterparts literally laugh in their faces. In the last ten years or so, however, a few female pioneers have pushed their way onto brewery floors to prove that making beer is anything but men’s work.

The movement of women into the industry has happened incredibly slowly. A male-dominated industry is generally considered to be one that has 25 percent or fewer women. While other men-centric businesses have started accepting women over the years (even mining, for example, was 13 percent women in the U.S. in 2011), the brewing industry doesn’t even bother to track how many women it employs. The generally accepted estimate is that less than 1 percent of all brewers in the U.S. are female. Whitney Burnside, who became the first female head brewer at Pelican Brewery in Oregon in January, says that when it came to her entering the industry, “there was a lot of resistance. I felt like I had to work extra hard to show them that I could do it. I never felt like it was acceptable. Now, even being the head brewer here, I still get the looks and the weird responses.”

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Photographing All of the World’s Reefs

(From, February 2014)

How do you understand global change of a system that’s underwater and impossible to photograph from above? Build a giant submersible camera system controlled by expert dive photographers, of course.

The world’s reef systems are deteriorating. Corals are going away at a rate of about 1 - 2 percent every year. Some areas are harder hit than others. In the last 27 years, the Great Barrier Reef has lost 53 percent of its corals and the Caribbean has lost 80 percent. That’s a big deal because reef systems are basically cities for fish. One quarter of all the ocean’s life makes their home there. If the ocean’s corals disappear then much of the life in the ocean disappears too. For humans, that means we can no longer depend on reef systems for food, protection from weather, tourism, and medicine.

So, we know reefs are important. And we know they’re deteriorating. What we don’t have is a visual understanding of how these reef systems are changing and any capability to compare changes to themselves or each other over time. To change that, professional underwater photographers have gotten together with ocean scientists to create the Global Reef Record — a world-wide Google Maps-like photographic index of all of the coral systems in the entire world.

“We’re creating a global baseline,” says Richard Vevers, executive director of the survey. “We’ve been travelling around the world using a standard protocol for collection imagery, which allows us to do a global comparison.”

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Why You Shouldn’t Worry About NuvaRing

(From LadyBits on Medium, January 2014)

We need to talk about birth control. Specifically, we need to talk about what is and isn’t dangerous about it, as there’s a lot of misinformation going around lately thanks to a scathing takedown of NuvaRing in Vanity Fair (Danger in the Ring by Marie Brenner, January 2014). If you haven’t read it, the story was a heartbreaking tale of two women who died from blood clots after using the birth control device. The story wasn’t, however, a calm and considered look at the accurate science of birth control (which is why I’m not going to link to it here).

To get a better idea of whether or not the story was realistic, or unnecessarily fear-mongering, I spent almost two hours talking with Trent MacKay and Diana Blithe, respectively the Chief and Program Director of the National Institute of Health’s Contraceptive Discovery and Development Branch. Here’s what I learned: A basic understanding of how birth control works will quickly dispel any fears you might have about using NuvaRing — or any method of birth control for that matter. So. Let’s all take a deep, calming breath and talk about how uteruses work.

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Favorite Science Facts Learned in 2013

(From, 12/26/2013)

Our science correspondent Erin recalls the favorite things she learned in her research from this past year!

Scientists Find Cosmic Neutrinos in Antarctica

There are so many cool things about this story. First, there’s the awesome fact that one of science’s biggest discoveries happened 1.5 miles below the icy surface of a frozen Antarctica glacier. Then there’s the fact that scientists detected a form of subatomic particle that passes right through solid matter. Actually, they didn’t just detect one, they detected 28 of them. It’s unprecedented. If you’re not familiar with a neutrino, they are subatomic particles released by fusion reactions happening in the sun (and other nuclear reactions around the universe). Trillions of them pass through us every second, but they never physically interact with matter, so it’s nearly impossible to know they even exist. Physicists at the IceCube observatory in Antarctica detected them by burying 5,000 sensors deep down in a glacier and looking for flashes of light released by debris that the neutrinos create. Now that science has been able to detect them, scientists say they are able to see the universe in a whole new way. In other words: we have just witnessed the birth of a new field of space science. How cool is that?!

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COLUMN - From chimp to chip: How To Get Rid Of Animal Testing

(From Popular Science, December 2013)

Last summer, the National Institutes of Health announced that it’s phasing out experiments on chimpanzees. All but 50 of its 451 chimps will go to sanctuaries, and it won’t breed the remainder. The change is based on its 2011 study that determined that advancements have rendered human trials, computer-based research, and genetically modified mice more scientifically useful than chimps. The U.S. is late to this. Australia, Japan, and the E.U. have already banned or limited experiments on great apes in medical research. But the science community should take it further. We should work to end all animal testing for good. 

Ninety percent of drugs that pass animal testing then fail in human trials.It’s not just a moral question. Ethics aside, there are plenty of scientific reasons to push away from animal testing. The most important is that animal-based methods are being equaled or surpassed by other means. And the result is better science overall. Over the last 10 years, we’ve started replacing rodents with human cells in drug toxicity tests. But the biggest hurdle is probably testing efficacy: how well a drug treats a medical condition. A common tack is to genetically manipulate mice to imitate human diseases, but human and mouse genes still behave differently. In part because of this, 90 percent of drugs that pass animal testing then fail in human trials.

Organs on a chip are one alternative. The thumb- size devices combine a thin layer of human cells with microchips that pump bloodlike fluid through them. At Harvard’s Wyss Institute, researchers have built a human gut-on-a-chip that replicates intestinal muscular contractions and a lung-on-a-chip with air-sac and capillary cells that exchange oxygen for carbon dioxide. The pseudo-lung can get infected and mimic complicated diseases such as chemotherapy-induced pulmonary edema. The institute is also working on chips for bone marrow, heart, and even brain tissue.

Computer models can help replace animals too. In the relatively new field of systems biology, scientists are making digital maps that simulate entire systems of the human body, down to the molecule. The Center for Systems Biology at the University of Iceland recently finished modeling all the chemical interactions of human metabolism and is starting on the blood. Last year, researchers at the University of California at San Francisco used a computer to predict negative side effects in on-market drugs with about 50 percent accuracy. That accuracy will only get better.

Human studies are also getting stronger. Lab animals are usually genetically identical clones, but people have lots of DNA differences that can affect how a drug works. For example, in 2010 it was discovered that the popular heart-attack-prevention drug Plavix is less effective for nearly one in three patients because of variances in their metabolisms. Now, gene tests can help doctors choose whether or not to prescribe it, and similar tests could do the same for other drugs. By relying on cloned animals and cells, we’ve probably been screening out helpful medicines before they even get to human trials.

Some animal testing will remain scientifically necessary for a long time. Studying visual perception, for example, requires a working eyeball connected to a brain (until a computer perfectly mimics it). But the more research options we create, the better science we’ll have.

Tour One of Iceland’s Incredible Geothermal Plants


Thanks to its location above two separating tectonic plates, Iceland is one of the most volcanically active places in the world. And where there is volcanic activity, there is opportunity to harness heat for energy. 

All the energy produced in Iceland comes from renewable resources. In fact, with only 323,000 residents, the nation is the world’s largest energy producer per capita and produces more energy than it needs. Plus, some experts estimate, Iceland has tapped only about 35 percent of its energy potential. For example, the country is one of the windiest places on earth, yet it installed its first two wind turbines just in December 2012 because it simply didn’t need them. 

Right now the country’s large aluminum smelting industry consumes most of the energy Iceland produces. But many in the nation are hoping to change that, perhaps by positioning Iceland as a hub of big data. Energy-hungry data centers could move to Iceland and run on its plentiful renewable energy. The data centers could use the natural low temperatures and high winds to freely cool their machinery, and Iceland could become a hub of green technology. “We have power in abundance. We haven’t harnessed it all,” says Ragnheiður Elín Árnadóttir, the country’s Minister of Industry and Commerce. “We are heavily dependent on one industry, which has been very good, but we’re looking for other ways to export our energy.” 

Iceland is in the very earliest stages of becoming a tech power—at the moment the country is only linked to three fiberoptic cables. But its energy capability is a marvel. We got a look inside one of the country’s main sources of renewable power generation:— the Svartsengi geothermal power plant. 

Read more: Tour One of Iceland’s Incredible Geothermal Plants - Popular Mechanics 

Why The Government Should Fund Unpopular Science - COLUMN

(From Popular Science Magazine, June 2013)

In April, President Obama announced, to much fanfare, that the government would spend $100 million on a detailed map of the human brain and how its neurons interact. The project is a waste of money. Brain mapping is well funded by public and private sources, and the feds should instead spend your dough on important things that business won’t.

The brain map was going to happen anyway. For example, IBM has a computer simulating 530 billion neurons; the Blue Brain Project is modeling the rat brain at the cellular level; the Allen Brain Atlas is mapping how genes in the brain turn on and off. Projects like these already have validity, and some have been funded by the government for years. To a certain extent, Obama’s initiative is making a big deal out of something the government had been doing for some time.

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Why You Should Embrace The Culinary Benefits of MSG


Poor MSG. So misunderstood. It’s easily one of the most incorrectly represented food additives in history. If you lived through the 80s then you probably think of it as an evil, life-destroying substance. But the reality is, it’s really just better-tasting salt.

Let’s set aside rumors and bad PR and simply break it down: MSG is monosodium glutamate. The monosodium part is just water and salt (though MSG has only about ⅓ the amount of sodium as table salt). Nothing too exciting there. It’s the G, or glutamate, that gives MSG it’s special powers of deliciousness.

Glutamate is an amino acid. And, in fact, it’s one of the most common amino acids in all of nature. Your own body produces it naturally, which means it’s also found in all meat products, including fish and milk. There’s also quite a bit of glutamate in vegetables like tomatoes, mushrooms, peas, beets, spinach, carrots, green peppers, and corn. If you’re noticing a trend here, then you’re probably already clued in to the next tidbit about glutamate. It’s the flavor that makes Umami.

Umami, of course, is the fifth of the five basic tastes, discovered for the first time in the early 1900s but not officially coined as a scientific term until 1985. Umami is the representation of the flavor “savory” and, quite correctly, comes from the Japanese words Umai (delicious) and Mi (taste).

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Awesome Jobs: Meet Nathalie Cabrol, Planetary Scientist and Extreme Altitude Diver

(From, Awesome Jobs series)

Nathalie Cabrol is a planetary scientist at NASA Ames and a senior research scientist at the SETI Institute. But just because her research focuses on the geology, ecology, and history of faraway planets doesn’t mean she stares through a telescope all day. On the contrary, Cabrol holds the world record for the highest elevation dive by a woman. And she got her record in the name of science! Cabrol climbs some of the world’s highest mountains and dives into their lakes to understand what life on other planets may have been like in the past before climate change eliminated their surface water. Cabrol sat down to chat with us about her legendary dive in the Andes and how we can learn about other planets by studying our own.

How can you study Mars from Earth?

My field is on Mars. So that makes it a big commute to get there. So I chose to go, not exactly halfway, but I climbed some way towards it.

If you want to go to Mars, you want to know what is the environment in the past and was it suitable for life? I have to go to Mars analog environments. The higher you go on earth, the thinner the atmosphere is, the more UV, and the temperature changes are the same as they are on Mars at the equator (even today). A volcanic environment is a good analog.

This is what drove me to climb the high volcanoes in the Andes. I was interested in the combination of extremes. I am a lake person. My husband and I have been promoting the idea that there were lakes on Mars. Nobody had thought about the fact that water could have pooled. Once the idea was OK in the community, we went to those very high volcanic lakes to try to understand what the environment would have been like.

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Awesome Jobs: Meet Kevin Hardy, Submarine Builder

(From, Awesome Jobs series)

We know almost nothing about who and what is lurking in the very deepest parts of the ocean. The good news is we have ocean engineers whose job is to battle buoyancy, pressure, and the communications challenges that would attempt to thwart our ability to learn more.

Kevin Hardy, an engineer at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California, is on the leading edge of the science that is, literally, probing the deep. You may have heard his name before. Hardy was responsible for building the Deep Ocean Vehicles that accompanied James Cameron on his submarine trip to the Mariana Trench. Just off the coast of Guam, the Mariana Trench is the deepest spot on earth (about 11 Kilometers or 7 miles).

The landers, as Hardy calls them, built for the Mariana dive are the result of more than a decade of research, but still just the beginning. Hardy is constantly updating his technology and his goal is to one day create a plug-and-play style vehicle that anyone can use.

“For me it’s the idea of building a pickup truck and the bed is open. It depends on the end user, what he puts in there. We’re trying to make it easy for any scientist, not just the big guys. There will be mechanical interfaces that work on small boats so you don’t have to need the big giant ships. We’re trying to come up with criteria that says, if it doesn’t weigh and more than this and fits in this space you’re good.”

In other words, Hardy wants to use his technology to make the deepest, most inaccessible place on the earth accessible to anyone that has an interest. He chatted with us about what it’s like to make machines and send them into the abyss.

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Awesome Jobs: Meet Tim Orr, Volcanologist

(From, Awesome Jobs series)

Volcanology is one of the most dangerous jobs in science — mainly because flying in helicopters around active volcanoes has a history of leading to serious accidents. But it’s also because a volcanologist’s job description includes getting up close and personal with molten-hot lava.

Tim Orr, the head Geologist at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, grew up in Montana, not far from Yellowstone National Park (which owes its geysers, hot springs, boiling mud pots, and steam vents to the fact that it sits on top of a hotspot and is sometimes referred to as a supervolcano). In 1980, when Mount St. Helens erupted Orr’s house happened to be downwind. “As a 12 year old boy I woke up to ash on my parents car. I was glued to the tv for weeks afterwards,” he says.

It’s no wonder that he went on to study geology and then head to Hawaii where he worked his way up the ranks of the HVO (it’s also a photo of Orr at work that you see on the Wikipedia page for volcanologist). Now in charge of monitoring changes in the just about 30-year-long eruption of Mount Kilauea, Orr chatted with us about what it’s like to have an office at the top of a volcano.

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Don’t be Afraid of Your DNA — COLUMN

(From Popular Science Magazine, April 2013)

In January, scientists scared the world by using public information to find the names behind five people’s anonymous, public DNA samples collected for research. The scientists then determined the identity of some 45 family members who had also donated DNA. How? By linking ages and locations associated with the five individuals to family trees associated with DNA on genealogy websites. (The subjects’ ages were then removed from public view.) The stunt, intended to raise awareness, also raised new fears—insurance companies denying coverage, discriminatory hiring practices, and the end of dating as we know it.

But these 50 people aren’t any less safe than the rest of us. No one’s DNA is—or has ever been—private. We spray our genetic material everywhere. We slough off a million skin cells a day. And free genealogy databases need only a fraction of a Y chromosome to find a last name. Sequencing a genome cost $100 million in 2001; today, it’s less than $10,000; soon, it will be as cheap as buying lunch.

Here’s the thing: Lack of genetic privacy isn’t just something to accept. We should embrace it. Scientists currently have just a tiny stock of human genomes, which they’re mostly unable to share between institutions because of restrictive regulations. 
The Human Genome Project
 is public, but it’s just one sequence. And most biotech companies, such as 23andMe, consider their databases proprietary. The two main groups that share full genomes of individuals (the 1000 Genomes Project and the Personal Genome Project) together have only about 1,500. This closed system is holding research back.

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