Tagged: Science

CO2 significantly reduces nutrients in major food crops

Rising levels of CO2 around the world will significantly impact the nutrient content of crops according to a new study. Experiments show levels of zinc, iron and protein are likely to be reduced by up to 10% in wheat and rice by 2050. The scientists say this could have health implications for billions of people, especially in the developing world.

Researchers have struggled over the past two decades to design large scale field trials to accurately model the impacts of increased CO2 levels on the nutritional makeup of crops…Now an international team has put together a global analysis based on experiments in Japan, Australia and the US.

They’ve grown 41 different varieties of grains and legumes in open fields, with levels of carbon dioxide expected in the middle of this century.

“It is possibly the most significant health threat that has been documented for climate change,” said lead author Dr Samuel Myers from the Harvard School of Public Health…”We found significant reductions in iron, zinc and protein in rice and wheat, and we found significant reductions in iron and zinc in soybeans and field peas as well,” he said.

The researchers estimate that these reductions of up to 10% could have major health implications for millions of people around the world.

Around a third of the global population are already suffering from iron and zinc shortages, leading to some 63 million life years being lost annually as a result.

“We found that close to 2bn people are getting at least 70% of their iron and zinc from these grains and legumes. So reductions in those crops are potentially quite worrisome in terms of increasing those deficiencies,” said Dr Myers…

The impact of carbon on nutrient levels is another straw on the camel’s back of poverty. The IPCC has already projected diminishing crop yields as a result of rising temperatures.

Folks who tie their gonads to the denial of climate change aren’t worried of course. They act like food magically appears every morning at McDonalds and Taco Bell. Climate has nothing to do with it.

A lonely quest for scientific fact on GMO crops

Rainbow papaya, GMO and grown on Hawaii for decades = 3/4’s of the papaya crop

From the moment the bill to ban genetically engineered crops on the island of Hawaii was introduced in May 2013, it garnered more vocal support than any the County Council here had ever considered, even the perennially popular bids to decriminalize marijuana.

Public hearings were dominated by recitations of the ills often attributed to genetically modified organisms, or G.M.O.s: cancer in rats, a rise in childhood allergies, out-of-control superweeds, genetic contamination, overuse of pesticides, the disappearance of butterflies and bees.

Like some others on the nine-member Council, Greggor Ilagan was not even sure at the outset of the debate exactly what genetically modified organisms were: living things whose DNA has been altered, often with the addition of a gene from a distant species, to produce a desired trait. But he could see why almost all of his colleagues had been persuaded of the virtue of turning the island into what the bill’s proponents called a “G.M.O.-free oasis.”

Please read the tale from start to finish. Greggor Ilagan is one of those rare politicians who is willing to spend a great deal of time studying the science affecting beliefs underlying political questions. Most of the article, long and well-detailed, deals with his willingness to examine the opinions of advocates on both sides of the questions around GMO crops – and the conclusions he reached.

For me, the telling conclusion he realized in the course of his study, is that dealing with GMO crops – on the Left – individuals don’t seem to think they require anymore real attention to science than does the Right on questions of climate change or human sexuality.

You betcha.

We can’t afford to get science education wrong

This is from one of my favorite sites in Australia

Science gives young people the tools to understand the world around us and the ability to engage with contemporary and future issues, such as medical advances and climate change. That is why science should be taught to students up until the age of 16. However, Ofsted’s recent report on the state of school science reports worrying trends in the way science is being taught.

A particular worry is the status of practical science in our schools. Studying science without experiments is like studying literature without books. Experiments are an inherent part of science and are vital for further study and employment. They bring theory to life, nurturing pupils’ natural curiosity, teaching them to ask questions and helping them to understand phenomena such as magnetism, acidity and cell division. Practical work gives them valuable skills and abilities, such as precise measurement and careful observation….there is a real danger that schools and colleges will give students even fewer practical experiences than they have now.

…According to the Wellcome Trust Monitor, an independent nationwide survey the most commonly selected factor that 14- to 18-year-olds identified as having encouraged them to learn science was “having a good teacher” (58%), and the most commonly selected factor for discouraging them from learning science was “having a bad teacher” (43%). That is why I fully support Ofsted’s recommendation that school leaders should ensure science-focused development of teachers….The future of science depends on the quality of science education today, and we cannot afford to get it wrong.

I feel the same about what is and what isn’t a well-rounded education in our public schools in the United States. Growing up in a New England factory town, I managed daily and weekly access to the basics + music and the arts + enough physical education to provide some guidance towards lifetime sports.

A lot of that could have been better – and should be with what we know nowadays. Paying teachers sufficiently to encourage the best students to become teachers is a given. So is spending enough hours in school to get this altogether.

The known knowns of climate change – a review

The philosopher Daniel Dennett once compared science to the construction of a huge pyramid. Its base comprises the mass of well-established knowledge – no longer controversial and seldom discussed outside academia. More recent research is piled toward the top of the pyramid, where most public debate takes place. It is an apt metaphor for climate-change research…

The IPCC’s fifth report, the product of several years of work by hundreds of climate scientists around the world, reviews our established understanding of climate change and explains more recent findings…Let us step back from the news cycle to look at the solid knowledge base of our pyramid…

An extraordinary, if underappreciated, feature of the IPCC’s reports is that, though many different scientists have worked on them over the past 23 years, the fundamental conclusions have not changed. This reflects an overwhelming consensus among scientists from around the world. Polls of climate researchers, as well as analysis of thousands of scientific publications, consistently show a 97-98% consensus that human-caused emissions are causing global warming…

The past can serve as a guide to the consequences of the warming that we are causing. Scientists studying paleoclimate – the climates of the ancient past – have documented the massive impact of earlier climatic changes. At the end of the last Ice Age, for example, global temperature rose by about 5ºC over a period of 5,000 years. This was enough to transform the Earth’s vegetation cover, melt two-thirds of the continental ice masses, and raise sea levels by more than a hundred meters. Slowly but surely, sea levels are inching up once again. A key conclusion of the new IPCC report is that sea-level rise has accelerated.

But, before millions of people are submerged, many will be struck by extreme weather events. Record-breaking hot months now occur five times more frequently than they would in a stable, unchanging climate; these heat waves cause droughts, wild fires, poor harvests, and, inevitably, loss of life.

The latest IPCC report describes our current predicament with disturbing clarity: global temperatures are climbing, mountain glaciers and polar ice caps are melting, sea levels are rising, and extreme weather events are becoming more frequent and more severe.

The details near the top of the knowledge pyramid can and should be intensely debated. But our solid understanding of the fundamentals of global warming – the base of our knowledge of climate science – should provide reason enough to press on with the implementation of carbon-free energy technologies. With a rapid reduction in emissions, it is still possible to keep warming within safe bounds (estimated at below 2ºC); but the task is becoming increasingly difficult. Failure to act quickly and globally will leave our children and grandchildren struggling to adapt to rapidly rising seas and devastating weather.

Here in the United States, self-destruction of traditional American conservatism and its replacement with populist, anti-science, superstition-based ideology makes any reasoned response to this information impossible. The legislative side of our federal government – and many of the state governments – is incapable of enacting anything useful. They would rather focus their loyalties on the wealthiest individuals and most powerful corporations. They dedicate the political process to bigotry and foolishness that passed its sell-by date a century ago.

Part of this is opportunism. The natural anger of a populace lied to by previous governments, their children sent off to imperial wars. The other side of this opportunist core is our long-cherished racism. Hypocrisy demands lip service to a post-racial society. Reality is another story. Add to this a fear of equal opportunity on the part of aging white males facing a minority role as time passes – and we have all the ingredients for fascist ideology finding a stronghold in this nation.

That the liberal portion of our political hacks has demonstrated the political will of a traffic light flashing caution at a 4-way stop intersection hasn’t helped. The vaguely [and barely] progressive wing of the two parties we’re generally allowed has the courage of a cricket and the attention span to match. If the rest of the Left side of educated folks in this land didn’t have the gumption it does, we’d be doomed. But, as an optimist as well as cynic, I’m always encouraged by the ability of the masses of this nation to allow a small percentage of brave individuals to coalesce and join the fight to improve life for us all.

To be citizens who affect our societies, we need a feel for science

Science isn’t just for scientists. It’s not just a training for careers. Today’s young people – all of them – will live in a world, ever more dependent on technology, and ever more vulnerable to its failures or misdirection. To be at ease in this fast-changing world, and to be effective citizens, they will all need at least some “feel” for science…

Society already confronts difficult questions like: Who should access the “readout” of our personal genetic code? How will lengthening life-spans affect society? Should we build nuclear power stations – or wind farms – to keep the lights on? Should we plant GM crops? Should the law allow “designer babies” or cognition enhancing drugs?

Such questions matter to us all: they involve science, but they involve economics, politics and ethics as well – areas where scientists speak as citizens without special expertise. But democratic debates won’t rise beyond Daily Mail slogans unless everyone has a feel for basic science, and for risk and uncertainty. As we know, many people don’t have this “feel”. Some can’t tell a bison from a boson. That’s a situation that we scientists routinely bemoan. But ignorance isn’t peculiar to science. It’s equally sad if citizens don’t know their nation’s history, can’t speak a second language, and can’t find North Korea or Syria on a map – and many can’t. This is an indictment of our education and culture in general – I don’t think scientists have a special reason to moan. Indeed, I’m gratified and surprised that so many people are interested in dinosaurs, the Hubble Telescope, the Higgs Boson – all blazingly irrelevant to our day-to-day lives.

And this leads to another reason why science education is important. Scientific insights should be valued for their own sake.

You can click the link immediately above to read where Martin Rees goes with the second half of the article. I have differences and agreements – and respect for all the processes he analyzes.

Science is the only global culture. The bits that work easily down to teenagers and working folks affect that global culture earliest and to a greater degree. The internet being the best recent example. It has not only disrupted access to and distribution of communications, creative or otherwise, the whole batch of societal containers continues to be reshaped by the addition of instant access to knowledge.

That knowledge can be edifying, freeing your mind and life – or it can be the same old crap designed generally to prop up ideology centuries past the sell-by date. Do with it what you will, you will be reacting at a pace undreamed of a few decades ago.

I think everyone comprehends that there are tons of answers scientists don’t have. There’s another word comes after that. The word is “YET”. The reality is that because of science and scientific methods essentially nothing is unknowable. Only the spooky sort of social pedant says “there are some things humans won’t ever know” – generally because examination of those questions threatens the ideology clutched to their breast and brain.

Scientists would rather keep asking those questions. I would rather ask those questions of myself – and others who studies are more dedicated than anything I have time to tie into my daily life’s structure. Asked honestly by individuals shed of sophistry – with no interest in selling you a better way to achieve immortality – I don’t care who asks the questions. And, perhaps, provokes some scientist into searching for an answer. Simple or complex, questions and answers can reorder the lives we lead.

Lord Martin Rees is Emeritus Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics at the University of Cambridge. He holds the honorary title of Astronomer Royal. Lord Rees is co-founder of the Centre for the Study of the Existential Risk, an early stage initiative which brings together a scientist, philosopher and software entrepreneur.

Texas bureaucrats require creationist crap for biology textbooks

Behind closed doors, textbook reviewers appointed by the Texas State Board of Education are pushing to inject creationism into teaching materials that will be adopted statewide in high schools this year, according to new documents obtained by watchdog groups. Records show that the textbook reviewers made ideological objections to material on evolution and climate change in science textbooks from at least seven publishers, including several of the nation’s largest publishing houses. Failing to obtain a review panel’s top rating can make it harder for publishers to sell their textbooks to school districts, and can even lead the state to reject the books altogether.

“Once again, culture warriors in the state board are putting Texas at risk of becoming a national laughingstock on science education,” said Kathy Miller, the president of the Texas Freedom Network, a nonprofit group that monitors religious extremists…

What’s more, because Texas has one of the nation’s largest public-school systems, publishers tend to tailor their textbooks for that market and then sell the same texts to the rest of America.

Few of the textbook reviewers who were critical of the teaching of evolution and climate change possessed any scientific credentials, according to NCSE. Among those who did, several were active in anti-evolution organizations such as the Discovery Institute.

According to the groups, the Texas Education Agency has declined to release documents showing what changes, if any, the publishers have agreed to make in response to these reviews. A public hearing on the books will take place next week in Austin, followed by a final vote to approve or reject them in November.

The article includes examples of the spooky crap these hacks would substitute for science. Some of them are flunkeys on the payroll of anti-science fronts like the Discovery Institute.

We can only hope Texans who not only believe they should be part of the United States; but, that education should be grounded in science and reason instead of 14th Century religious ideology – prevail over the nutballs who specialize in running that state’s government.

Interstellar winds change direction over 40 years

Click to enlarge

Like the wind adjusting course in the middle of a storm, scientists have discovered that the particles streaming into the solar system from interstellar space have most likely changed direction over the last 40 years. Such information can help us map out our place within the galaxy surrounding us, and help us understand our place in space.

The results, based on data spanning four decades from 11 different spacecraft, were published in Science on Sept. 5, 2013.

Vestiges of the interstellar wind flowing into what’s called the heliosphere — the vast bubble filled by the sun’s own constant flow of particles, the solar wind – is one of the ways scientists can observe what lies just outside of our own home, in the galactic cloud through which the solar system travels. The heliosphere is situated near the inside edge of an interstellar cloud and the two move past each other at a velocity of 50,000 miles per hour. This motion creates a wind of neutral interstellar atoms blowing past Earth, of which helium is the easiest to measure.

“Because the sun is moving though this cloud, interstellar atoms penetrate into the solar system,” said Priscilla Frisch, an astrophysicist at the University of Chicago, Ill. and the lead author on the paper. “The charged particles in the interstellar wind don’t do a good job of reaching the inner solar system, but many of the atoms in the wind are neutral. These can penetrate close to Earth and can be measured…”

The earliest historical data on the interstellar wind comes from the 1970s from the U.S. Department of Defense’s Space Test Program 72-1 and SOLRAD 11B, NASA’s Mariner, and the Soviet Prognoz 6. While instruments have improved since the 1970s, comparing information from several sets of observations helped the researchers gain confidence in results from that early data. The team went on to look at another seven data sets including the Ulysses information from 1990 to 2001, and more recent data from IBEX, as well as four other NASA missions: the Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory, or STEREO, the Advanced Composition Explorer, or ACE, the Extreme Ultraviolet Explorer, and the MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging mission, or MESSENGER, currently in orbit around Mercury. The eleventh set of observations came from the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Nuzomi.

“The direction of the wind obtained from the most recent data does not agree with the direction obtained from the earlier measurements, suggesting that the wind itself has changed over time,” said Eric Christian, the IBEX mission scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. “It’s an intriguing result, which relied on looking at a suite of data measured in a bunch of different ways…”

From Earth’s perspective, the interstellar wind flows in from a point just above the constellation Scorpius. Results from 11 spacecraft over 40 years show that the exact direction has changed some 4 to 9 degrees since the 1970s…

“Previously we thought the local interstellar medium was very constant, but these results show that it is highly dynamic, as is the heliosphere’s interaction with it,” said David McComas, IBEX principal investigator at Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas.

Now, of course, scientists being the curious critters they are – time to set forth to find out how and why this happened, why it’s happening?

Golden Rice – Lifesaver? No matter – pitchforks and torches!

golden rice
Plant biotechnologist Dr. Swapan Datta at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines

One bright morning this month, 400 protesters smashed down the high fences surrounding a field in the Bicol region of the Philippines and uprooted the genetically modified rice plants growing inside.

Had the plants survived long enough to flower, they would have betrayed a distinctly yellow tint in the otherwise white part of the grain. That is because the rice is endowed with a gene from corn and another from a bacterium, making it the only variety in existence to produce beta carotene, the source of vitamin A. Its developers call it “Golden Rice.”

The concerns voiced by the participants in the Aug. 8 act of vandalism — that Golden Rice could pose unforeseen risks to human health and the environment, that it would ultimately profit big agrochemical companies — are a familiar refrain in the long-running controversy over the merits of genetically engineered crops. They are driving the desire among some Americans for mandatory “G.M.O.” labels on food with ingredients made from crops whose DNA has been altered in a laboratory. And they have motivated similar attacks on trials of other genetically modified crops in recent years: grapes designed to fight off a deadly virus in France, wheat designed to have a lower glycemic index in Australia, sugar beets in Oregon designed to tolerate a herbicide, to name a few…

But Golden Rice, which appeared on the cover of Time Magazine in 2000 before it was quite ready for prime time, is unlike any of the genetically engineered crops in wide use today, designed to either withstand herbicides sold by Monsanto and other chemical companies or resist insect attacks, with benefits for farmers but not directly for consumers…

Not owned by any company, Golden Rice is being developed by a nonprofit group called the International Rice Research Institute with the aim of providing a new source of vitamin A to people both in the Philippines, where most households get most of their calories from rice, and eventually in many other places in a world where rice is eaten every day by half the population. Lack of the vital nutrient causes blindness in a quarter-million to a half-million children each year. It affects millions of people in Asia and Africa and so weakens the immune system that some two million die each year of diseases they would otherwise survive.

The destruction of the field trial, and the reasons given for it, touched a nerve among scientists around the world, spurring them to counter assertions of the technology’s health and environmental risks. On a petition supporting Golden Rice circulated among scientists and signed by several thousand, many vented a simmering frustration with activist organizations like Greenpeace, which they see as playing on misplaced fears of genetic engineering in both the developing and the developed worlds. Some took to other channels to convey to American foodies and Filipino farmers alike the broad scientific consensus that G.M.O.’s are not intrinsically more risky than other crops and can be reliably tested.

At stake, they say, is not just the future of biofortified rice but also a rational means to evaluate a technology whose potential to improve nutrition in developing countries, and developed ones, may otherwise go unrealized.

RTFA. Especially if you are unused to wandering the world of scientific abstracts and peer-reviewed journals. Unfortunately, though my peers and friends in dissent from status quo politics often can rely on well-informed sources footnoted by left-wing journalists on issues ranging from war to peace – questions of advances in food crops are crippled by an anti-science bias worthy of any 19th Century Luddite.

Anti GMO foot soldiers deny that identity, of course. In truth, it’s the exact quality common to middle class radicals who rely on as little reading and research on their own as any Tea Party bigot.

Golden rice is open source. Corporate agribusiness makes no special profit from the crop. Aside from anything else, the product adds Vitamin D to the diet of most of the 3rd World.

I’m embarrassed by some stalwarts who say they’re on my side in the confrontation of workingclass needs versus the class of profiteers who control our world. I spent 2 years reading, defining my own understanding of climate change. Years before the IPCC Report and Al Gore. It was worth the debate, worth learning. I’ve done the same with genetics, though admittedly easier for knowing scientists active in microbiology for decades.

I still don’t recommend relying on priests, politicians or pundits.