She’s 11: America’s top young scientist works to help detect problems in Flint’s water supply, and yours

November 17, 2017

NPR caption: Gitanjali Rao, 11, says she was appalled by the drinking water crisis in Flint, Mich. — so she designed a device to test for lead faster. She was named

NPR caption: Gitanjali Rao, 11, says she was appalled by the drinking water crisis in Flint, Mich. — so she designed a device to test for lead faster. She was named “America’s Top Young Scientist” on Tuesday at the 3M Innovation Center in St. Paul, Minn. Andy King/Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge

Melinda Gates noticed; you should, too. (And check out the NPR story to which Gates links.)

NPR tells the story:

When the drinking water in Flint, Mich., became contaminated with lead, causing a major public health crisis, 11-year-old Gitanjali Rao took notice.

“I had been following the Flint, Michigan, issue for about two years,” the seventh-grader told ABC News. “I was appalled by the number of people affected by lead contamination in water.”

She saw her parents testing the water in their own home in Lone Tree, Colo., and was unimpressed by the options, which can be slow, unreliable or both.

“I went, ‘Well, this is not a reliable process and I’ve got to do something to change this,’ ” Rao told Business Insider.

Rao tells ABC that while she was doing her weekly perusal of MIT’s Materials Science and Engineering website to see “if there’s anything’s new,” she read about new technologies that could detect hazardous substances and decided to see whether they could be adapted to test for lead.

She pressed local high schools and universities to give her lab time and then hunkered down in the “science room” — outfitted with a big white table — that she persuaded her engineer parents to create in their home.

And she set about devising a more efficient solution: a device that could identify lead compounds in water and was portable and relatively inexpensive.

As she explains at lightning speed in her video submission for the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge, her device consists of three parts. There is a disposable cartridge containing chemically treated carbon nanotube arrays, an Arduino-based signal processor with a Bluetooth attachment, and a smartphone app that can display the results.

(Film details:

Published on Jul 18, 2017
“Meet Gitanjali. Gitanjali hopes to reduce the time of lead detection in water by using a mobile app, to connect over Bluetooth to get status of water, almost immediately.”)

Stories like this should give you hope for our future. It’s clear that women should be encouraged to go into science and technology.

Stories like this should also get you out of your chair to yell at policy makers who cut funds for basic research, for education, and who rail against immigration. President Trump will not host the science fair that graced the White House for the past eight years. Time for you and me to stand up to demand support for science, and for women in science.

Tip of the old scrub brush to Melinda Gates.

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Missing Carl Sagan, on his birthday, November 9

November 10, 2017

Carl Sagan would have been 83 on November 9. Image from Cornell University.

Carl Sagan would have been 83 on November 9. Image from Cornell University.

It’s been one of those weeks, and I missed posting anything early for Carl Sagan’s birthday, a day on which many work to keep his memory and wisdom alive.

Here are a few of the tributes, from Twitter.

 

 

 

 

 

 


Milky Way at the Canyon of the Ancients National Monument

November 7, 2017

Interior’s great photographer Bob Wick is at it again, this time in Colorado:

Archaeological site at Canyon of the Ancients National Monument in Colorado. Photo by Bob Wick, Bureau of Land Management.

Archaeological site at Canyon of the Ancients National Monument in Colorado. Photo by Bob Wick, Bureau of Land Management.

This photo is featured in a story from the National Park Service about celebrating Native American Heritage month, which is November.


Carl Sagan’s “foreboding” of a dumb America; too late to stop it?

August 9, 2017

NASA photo of Dr. Carl Sagan with a model of the Mars Viking Lander, in Death Valley, California. Or was it taken on Mars? How could we tell, if we lacked sharpened and practiced critical thinking practices?

NASA photo of Dr. Carl Sagan with a model of the Mars Viking Lander, in Death Valley, California. Or was it taken on Mars? How could we tell, if we lacked sharpened and practiced critical thinking practices?

Are we already too late?

In The Demon-Haunted World in 1995, astronomer and thinker Carl Sagan worried about the directions America was heading, intellectually, and what it could mean for the future. He wrote:

Science is more than a body of knowledge; it is a way of thinking. I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time—when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness. The dumbing down of America is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30-second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance.

Sagan had hope. His book’s full title is The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a candle in the dark.

Should we hold that hope today? Elections in 2016 demonstrated that false news does sway the electorate, superstition can overcome knowledge. Worse, too many Americans cannot tell the difference. In a time when millions of Americans profess to work to find “the way,” we confront those same people wandering aimlessly through American culture, apparently with little clue as to how far off the path of reality they are, or any real understanding of what “the way” would even look like. Their compasses operate on faith, not magnetism; their compass needles point whichever way they want them to point, with no fixed power to guide them.

Sagan didn’t write that long ago. A child born in 1995 just voted in her first national election — we hope. Perhaps she didn’t bother to register, and did not vote. What causes our national lack of motivation to even vote, to push our government in the directions we think it should go?

How do we remove the barriers to that motivation? is a more important question.

Was Sagan right? Are we doomed?

We have cause to worry, I think.

  • 58% of Americans eligible to vote, voted in 2016. While that’s near a recent high-water mark, it’s a paltry percentage compared to other democracies in the world. Apathy was highest in key states Donald Trump carried; Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, but trailed President Barack Obama’s 2012 totals by 2 million votes, in those key states. 2016’s election was decided by people who did not vote.
  • While tensions run high in the Korean Peninsula, only about 36% of Americans can find Korea on a map. Most of those who can find Korea favor diplomacy to resolve tensions, not war. Who was the wag who said God gives us wars so Americans learn geography? (It was Rose-Belford’s Canadian Monthly in 1879, rephrased and repeated dozens of times by others.)
  • Flat Earthers? Oy.
  • Anti-vaccine movement. Chem-trails fearfuls. Climate change dissenters. Creationists. Moon-landing deniers. Racists. So-called non-racists who oppose immigration completely. Republican senators who imagined a tax cut for the wealthy would help working and poor Americans have better health. DDT advocates. “Libertarians” and so-called conservatives who fear “socialism” of the economics of John Maynard Keynes, one of the foremost capitalism defenders in economics.
  • Cuts to education. As a barometer, consider Texas, where 25 years ago the state provided 67% of funding for public schools. After decades of cuts, the state provides only 38% of public school funding in the 2017-2019 budget. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick touts the total as an increase.
  • Cuts to science. Trump administration proposals slash all science research dramatically, as if we already have cures for cancer and the common cold, and Alzheimer’s disease.

To be sure, we can find pockets of hope. Girl Scouts demonstrate great success with new programs to attract girls to careers in science, with special camps for Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). Boy Scouts have their own initiative. But the Texas legislature cut back on math, science and geography requirements for graduation. For every hopeful sign, there’s another sinister sign.

How can we tell civilization, and humanity, gain ground?

 

Pollsters for the New York Times asked 1,746 Americans to locate North Korea on a map. 36% could do it; many of the guesses are troubling, if not downright shocking. In the map above, from the New York Times, correct answers are marked in red, incorrect in blue.

Pollsters for the New York Times asked 1,746 Americans to locate North Korea on a map. 36% could do it; many of the guesses are troubling, if not downright shocking. In the map above, from the New York Times, correct answers are marked in red, incorrect in blue.

“Science as a candle in the dark” is a good image.

How can we provide light in the darkness, if we don’t have a candle, and we can’t find matches?

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The Tweet that piqued my interest tonight:

 

 

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Annals of DDT: Eagles return to Buffalo, New York, in a big way

July 26, 2017

Caption from the Buffalo News: A bald eagle, one of a pair of eagles raising chicks in a nest on Strawberry Island in the Niagara River, fishes in the river, Saturday, March 9, 2013. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Caption from the Buffalo News: A bald eagle, one of a pair of eagles raising chicks in a nest on Strawberry Island in the Niagara River, fishes in the river, Saturday, March 9, 2013. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Among the greater chunks of powerful evidence for the damage the pesticide DDT did to birds is the dramatic recovery of some species as residual DDT levels drop, after DDT use ended in the U.S.

In 1970 only one nesting pair of bald eagles lived in New York state; I have not found whether they successfully fledged any young that year, but the odds are against it.

47 years later, eagles nest in after-recovery record numbers in New York, according to the venerable Buffalo News.

If you haven’t spotted the stark white head of a bald eagle somewhere in the Buffalo Niagara sky, it might be time to get out of the house more often.

Eagles are back in historically high numbers, according to a recent report by the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

The DEC reported a record-high 442 bald eagle breeding territories statewide in 2016, including 58 spots in six Western New York counties, including Erie, Niagara, Wyoming, Chautauqua, Cattaraugus and Allegany counties. That’s up from 38 spots in the region in 2012.

“It’s an astonishing number,” said Jim Landau, a count coordinator from the Hamburg Hawk Watch.

Recovery of bald eagles, and other endangered raptors including osprey, brown pelicans and peregrine falcons, is a great chapter in the book of successes of the Endangered Species Act and the rising conservation consciousness of the 1970s.

Recovery of all four species waited after EPA’s ban on crop use of DDT, until residual DDT levels in adult birds declined to a point the female birds could once again produce competent shells for the eggs they laid. DDT levels in fish and prey also had to drop to levels that would not poison chicks just hatched.

EPA banned DDT from U.S. farms in 1972, designating all DDT made in the country for export, to fight disease. Though DDT use declined world wide as resistance to the pesticide spread rapidly among mosquitoes and flies that were its target, most diseases DDT fought against declined. I estimate about 100 million fewer people died of malaria alone after the DDT ban. Birds were saved, and so were humans.

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Do you remember when government gave humanity hope for the future? A giant leap for mankind on July 20, 1969

July 20, 2017

It’s a day to remember history.  Do you remember that day, the first time humans set foot on the Moon?

God knows we could use more Americans to have faith in the good intentions of NASA scientists today; we could use more dreams like those NASA gave us then, too.

Southwest Elementary in Burley, Idaho, existed in a world far, far away from the U.S. space program. We watched rocket launches on black and white televisions — the orbital launches were important enough my father let me stay home from school to watch, but when he dropped me off at school, I was in a tiny band of students who actually made it to school. Potato farmers and the merchants who supported them thought the space program was big, big stuff, worth missing school.

By John Glenn’s flight, a three-orbit extravaganza on February 20, 1962, a television would appear in the main vestibule of the school, or in the auditorium, and we’d all watch. There were very few spitballs. Later that year my family moved to Pleasant Grove, Utah.

Earthrise from Apollo 11, before the Moon landing

Moonrise from Apollo 11 prior to Moon landing.

Toward the end of the Gemini series, television news networks stopped providing constant coverage. The launch, the splashdown, a space walk or other mission highlight, but the nation didn’t hold its breath so much for every minute of every mission. Barry McGuire would sing about leaving the planet for four days in space (” . . . but when you return, it’s the same old place.”), then six days, but it was just newspaper headlines.

The Apollo 1 fire grabbed the nation’s attention again. Gus Grissom, one of the three who died, was one of the original space titans; death was always a possibility, but the U.S. program had been so lucky. Apollo’s start with tragedy put it back in the headlines.

The space program and its many successes made Americans hopeful, even in that dark decade when the Vietnam War showed the bloody possibilities of the Cold War. That darkest year of 1968 — see the box below — closed nicely with Apollo 8 orbiting the Moon, and the famous Christmas Eve telecast from the three astronauts, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and William A. Anders. The space program kept us hopeful.

By early 1969 many of us looked forward to the flight of Apollo 11 scheduled for July — the space flight that promised to put people on the Moon for the first time in history, the realization of centuries-old dreams.

Then I got my assignment for Scouting for the summer.  Out of nearly 50 nights under the stars, one of the days would include the day of the space walk. Not only was it difficult to get televisions into Maple Dell Scout Camp, a good signal would be virtually impossible. I went to bed Sunday night knowing the next day I’d miss the chance of a lifetime, to watch the first moon landing and walk.

Just after midnight my sister Annette woke me up. NASA decided to do the first walk on the Moon shortly after touchdown, at an ungodly hour. I’d be unrested to check Scouts in, but I’d have seen history.

And so it was that on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot on the Moon: “A small step for a man, a giant leap for mankind,” was what he meant to say in a transmission that was famously garbled (at least he didn’t say anything about jelly doughnuts).

NASA provided a video compilation for the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11 in 2009:

P. Z. Myers says he remembers a lawnmower going somewhere. It must have been very bright in Seattle. (Thanks for the reminder, P.Z., and a tip of the old scrub brush to you.)

2016 marks the 47th anniversary.

Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) lists 11 dates for U.S. history as the touchstones kids need to have: 1609, the founding of Jamestown; 1776, the Declaration of Independence; 1787, the Constitutional Convention; 1803, the Louisiana Purchase; 1861-1865, the American Civil War; 1877, the end of Reconstruction; 1898, the Spanish American War; 1914-1918, World War I; 1929, the Stock Market Crash and beginning of the Great Depression; 1941-1945, World War II; 1957, the launching of Sputnik by the Soviets. Most teachers add the end of the Cold War, 1981; I usually include Apollo 11 — I think that when space exploration is viewed from a century in the future, manned exploration will be counted greater milestone than orbiting a satellite; my only hesitance on making such a judgment is the utter rejection of such manned exploration after Apollo, which will be posed as a great mystery to future high school students, I think.)

* Why 1968 was such a tough year, in roughly chronological order: 1968 produced a series of disasters that would depress the most hopeful of people, including: the Pueblo incident, the B-52 crash in Greenland, the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, the nerve gas leak at the Army’s facility at Dugway, Utah, that killed thousands of sheep, Lyndon Johnson’s pullout from the presidential race with gathering gloom about Vietnam, the Memphis garbage strike, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., riots, the Black Panther shoot-out in Oakland, the Columbia University student takeover, the French student strikes, the tornadoes in Iowa and Arkansas on May 15, the Catonsville 9 vandalism of the Selective Service office, the sinking of the submarine U.S.S. Scorpion with all hands, the shooting of Andy Warhol, the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, the Buenos Aires soccer riot that killed 74 people, the Glenville shoot-out in Cleveland, the cynicism of the Republicans and the nomination of Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew, the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia crushing the “Prague Spring” democratic reforms, the Chicago Democratic Convention and the police riot, the brutal election campaign, the Tlatololco massacre of students in Mexico City, Black Power demonstrations by winning U.S. athletes at the Mexico City Olympics, coup d’etat in Panama. Whew!

More, from Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub:

And even more:

Yes, this is mostly an encore post. Fighting ignorance requires patience.

This is a bit of a traditional July 20 post, and yes, this is mostly an encore post. Fighting ignorance requires patience.


Was Richard Feynman really an “unlikely leader?”

June 2, 2017

Richard Feynman, working with the Rogers Commission on the Challenger Shuttle Disaster, demonstrating effects of cold on the vital O-rings, with a glass of ice-water, a C-clamp and an O-ring. Open University film screen capture

Richard Feynman, working with the Rogers Commission on the Challenger Shuttle Disaster, demonstrating effects of cold on the vital O-rings, with a glass of ice-water, a C-clamp and an O-ring. Open University film screen capture

Interesting series of films from The Open University, on “unlikely leaders.” The film on Richard Feynman is a good introduction to his work in a few minutes.

Who the hell is “The Open University?” Their website offers a lot of free courses, but no clue about who finances the bunch, or even where it’s physically headquartered. I gather it’s a British group, but find little substantial information beyond that. Website copyright 2014; it’s got a modest track record.

Nice piece on Feynman. But is it a stealth piece to sucker people in? Feynman would be cautious about jumping on the Open University bandwagon. Or is Open University straight up? Enjoy Feynman.

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