Archive for November, 2009

Science & Soul: I’m Back!

Sorry about the long wait, but work comes first.  Anyway, I am getting back in the swing of things for a little while.

Science News in Brief

The Large Haldron Collider has resumed operation and set a new world record for energy.  Its particle beams were accelerated at over one trillion volts.  This was just a precursor to the Collider’s primary scientific tests set for the year 2010.

Still No Black Hole: Just to give you a sense of the energy involved here: a lightning strike hits with about 1 billion volts.

A cross-disciplinary team of researchers from universities across America have released a study which indicates that climate change could increase the likelihood of civil war in sub-Saharan African countries by as much as 50% in the by 2050.  These wars would be fueled by decreased water supplies, fewer food sources, and increased poverty rates.

Talking World War III Blues: Already, 5.4 million people have died from civil war the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, making it the deadliest conflict since World War II.

Scientists seem to have discovered the reason for the hammerhead shark’s strange head shape.  The shape allows sharks to see almost in 360 degrees in binocular vision.

Weird Animal Fact: The mantis shrimp has the best eyesight in the animal world.  It is the only animal to to have hyperspectral colour vision.  That is, it can see across the electromagnetic spectrum.  We can only see visible light.

Cool Creature

I already covered the kakapo, but I have been dying to post this video.

Feature Story: Remember Me

Are some animal species more important than others?  A recent study which examined 222 carnivore species around the world points to the fact that certain carnivores should be more protected than others due to their ecological importance and individuality.

Even though carnivores are probably the most studied animal group, their taxonomic connections are not well understood.  Thanks to genetic testing, scientists are now able to construct much more accurate taxonomic maps.

The study supports the theory that describes the split of carnivores into two main evolutionary groups: dog-like carnivores (Caniforms) and cat-like carnivores (Heliforms).  The same study also revealed some so-called Confused carnivores which do not fit neatly into the aforementioned classification.

Researchers performing the study also isolated a number of carnivores which are unique in the ecological services they perform and the way they evolved.  They suggest that these species, including monk seals, red pandas, and walruses, should be more protected than others because they are so unique.  Because they are evolutionarily distinct, they have genes and evolutionary history not found in any other species.  This makes it important with regards to biodiversity: by increasing genetic variability.

The Cosmic Perspective

All people value equality: the right to be treated with equal respect and dignity as any other human being.  Those who value the environment tend to extend that to the animal world.  We do not like to show preferential treatment to certain animals just because they are cute and cuddly.  So, this study which claims that certain animals are more important from an evolutionary perspective comes as a bit of a shock.  Why should a walrus be more important than a snow leopard?

I look at this from two points of view: that of a scientist and that of an environmentalist, because I consider myself to be both.  As a scientist, I definitely see the merit of protecting certain species.  Different animals perform different tasks in an ecosystem.  Certain animals’ roles are more critical to the functioning of the system as a whole than others.  It is a principle of network systems thinking that  nodes (animals) in a system (ecosystem) can be ranked based on the number of nodes which connect to them and the importance of those nodes.  So, the more important connections an animal has, the more important it is in an ecosystem.  However, even a few important links can prove to elevate a species to a higher status than one with many relatively commonplace connections.

That being said, all animals play an important role in biodiversity.  Biodiversity provides for the astounding variety of different organisms, genes, ecosystems in which they exist, and biological services these organisms provide for life to adapt to changing environmental conditions throughout history.  It would be foolish not to save as much as we can of the already dwindling amount of biological diversity we have on this planet.  We often do not know how important something is before it is gone altogether.

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A Strange System: Food: What We Can Do

I’m all ranted out for now, so I shall bring this series to a close.  I have hinted at a number of things we, the average consumer, can do to improve the system.  So, to finish off the series, I am posting a list created by a professor of Environmental Studies, Dr. Richard Andrus, which I think is completely reasonable to attain.

For personal health-

  1. Eat more whole foods and avoid processed sugars & starch.
  2. Avoid factory farmed meat, dairy & eggs wherever possible.
  3. Eat modest amounts of grass-fed meat.

For the environment-

  1. Avoid factory farmed meat.  They cause massive pollution issues from concentration of nitrates and massive erosion from corn & soybean production for animal feed.
  2. Buy local. This cuts back of food miles and helps reduce CO2 emissions.
  3. Buy unprocessed food, as processing takes huge amounts of fossil fuels.
  4. Avoid any processed drinks that come in a non-reusable container. The only reusable containers available currently are glass beer bottles from Canada. Recyclable does NOT mean reusable. Most recycled containers end up in the landfill.
  5. Buy organic, as long as it’s unprocessed.
  6. Grow, cook and brew your own.

For everything!

1. Purchase as little food as possible that results in profits for corporations. There are two reasons. One is that by law they are bound to maximize profits for shareholders, which means they are bound to take advantage of human weaknesses that attract us to unhealthy foods. The second reason is that a prime way to increase profits is do whatever you can legally do to externalize the costs of your activities. This results in pollution from agricultural fields, abuse of farm workers. contamination from factory farms, abuse of farm animals,and  huge production of packaging solid waste.

Andrus, Richard, PhD. Some Simple Dietary Suggestions. Binghamton University. Web. 15 Nov. 2009.

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A Strange System: Food: Hard Travelin’ Blues

You walk through the aisles of your local supermarket.  Apples in June.  Watermelons in February.  Oranges in December.  Weird star fruit in….well I don’t actually know if star fruit have a picking season.  So how do we have these fruits and vegetables when it is not time for them to be picked.

Most of our food doesn’t come from the good ol’ USA.  As I previously mentioned, we mainly grow corn.  Most of that is used for biofuels and livestock feed.  So where do we get all this stuff?  Well, where is it warm and rainy all year-round (and cheap to grow)?  Thing South.  We get a vast majority of our produce (when not in season) comes from Mexico, Brazil, Columbia, and Brazil.  If you have time, I suggest you actually go to your local supermarket and ask the manager from where the produce is coming.  99 times out of 100, you will get a blank stare.

As a nation, we have become so disconnected from the very sustenance we need for survival.  Most urbanites think farmer as being synonymous with country bumpkin, redneck, hillbilly, or quaint.  There is a social stigma to be a farmer.  But should those farmers disappear, well, the high and mighty urbanites are in for a world of hurt.  In fact, this may not be as strange as one would think.  Since 1979, 300,000 small farms have disappeared in the United States, and since 1946 the number of people who make their living by farming has been cut in half. Increasingly, large companies like Monsanto and Carghill take over and force farmers out of their land.

Farmers' Numbers Decrease

Farmers' Numbers Decrease

Back to the food.  So these crops are being grown in countries far away from all of us.  The workers who are spraying the pesticides we previously mentioned, working long hours in the hot sun are probably not being paid very well.  But that is not a problem: we get our watermelons cheap!  The crops are finally picked.  Now what?  The crops are put in an air-conditioned airplane and flown to packaging and distribution centers throughout the United States.  Then, they are shipped in air-conditioned trucks all over the country on our wonderful highway system.  This is hugely energy intensive.  It is estimated that the average American family’s meal has traveled almost 10,000 miles before it reaches the plate (in December, to be fair).   Scientists have clocked energy usage as being 10 calories of fossil fuels for 1 calorie of food.  Talk about inefficient.

The Cosmic Perspective

Perhaps for the purposes of this series the Cosmic Perspective should be retitled to What You Can Do.  Oh well, too late.

If ever there was a simple way to make a difference it is to: buy local and in season!  Simple!

Don’t buy those apples in June or watermelons in February.  Eat what is available in your zone when you plan to eat it.  That might mean doing without some things.  Unfortunately, most Americans are still in the mentality that they want it all and they want it now.  So visit your local farmer’s markets.  Not only will you help support the local economy (that is all the rage), but you will be eating better: better for you and for the environment.  Build a relationship with those great folks who grow your food.  Check out this link to find more links regarding local eating:


I don’t mean that you have to drop oranges altogether.  I have eaten a star fruit.  Guilty as charged.  But all good things in moderation.  Once in a while is fine, every day is where the problem arises.

In her book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver notes,

“The main barrier standing between ourselves and a local-food culture is not price, but attitude. The most difficult requirements are patience and a pinch of restraint – virtues that are hardly the property of the wealthy. . . We’re raising our children on the definition of promiscuity if we feed them a casual, indiscriminate mingling of foods from every season plucked from the supermarket, ignoring how our sustenance is cheapened by wholesale desires. Waiting for the quality experience seems to be the constitutional article that has slipped from the American food custom…We have the illusion of consumer freedom, but we’ve sacrificed our community life for the pleasure of purchasing lots of cheap stuff. Making and moving all that stuff can be so destructive: child labor in foreign lands, acid rain in the Northeast, depleted farmland, communities where the big economic engine is crystal meth. We often have the form of liberty but not the substance.”

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A Strange System: Food: Blue Baby Blues

Time to get back on the horse after a week of midterms.

Nitrogen was the primary limiting nutrient in terrestrial ecosystems.  Nitrogen levels could be increased by using composted organic material, but that took a long period of time and was hard work.  Keep that in mind.  World War II is raging and ammonia is needed to create munitions.  Cue Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch.  They came up with the aptly named Haber-Bosch Process which synthetically fixes nitrogen by reacting nitrogen gas and hydrogen gas over an enriched iron catalyst to produce ammonia.  Before this, ammonia was difficult to produce on an industrial scale because atmospheric nitrogen, N2, contains resilient triple bonds. During the process, N2 gas is combined with H2 gas at high pressures and high temperatures.  This reaction takes place in the presence of a catalyst, usually some sort of iron, which lowers the activation energy required to break chemical bonds, allowing the reaction to happen more efficiently.   After all is said and done, we have gaseous ammonia which can be condensed into liquid ammonia.  This, in turn, can be used in munitions.


Haber Bosch Process

Soldiers were coming home after the end of the second World War.  Everybody wants to forget about the staggering losses of life that took place during the War.  But, the chemical companies which supplied chemicals needed for weapons during wartime have a problem.  No war means no sales.  They had to adapt to a new market quickly.  So, they came up with a brilliant idea: they would work to create chemical fertilizers and pesticides.  I bet you didn’t know that chemicals used in wartime could be so easily converted to fertilizers and pesticides (take Agent Orange and DDT, for example).  These chemicals greatly improved our agricultural output.  In fact, the increases in crop yields were so drastic that it is still called the Green Revolution.  Crops were specifically chosen and bred so that they could tolerate high nutrient levels that are not normally present in nature.  The problem is that the Green Revolution was not very green.

I don't even have words for this...

One cannot be led to believe that pumping inordinate amounts of  nitrogen fertilizer into the soil is natural.  And since the soil cannot possibly hold all of it, much is lost when irrigation (more on that next time) percolates through the soil, flushing many of the nitrates into streams, rivers, and groundwater.  Oops.  As I mentioned before.  Nitrates from fertilizers often flow into rivers which dump the excess nutrients into bodies of water, creating algal blooms.  The algal blooms don’t have all that much oxygen in the rather warm waters (warm liquids don’t hold gases as well as cold ones (why pop is better cold)), so they die relatively quickly, but not before using up all of the oxygen in the water, creating a dead zone.

The nitrates can also seep into ground water which is then used for drinking, bathing, washing dishes, etc.  Not surprisingly, this is not great for your health.  In fact, excess nitrates have been linked to many diseases, particularly in children, whose small bodies cannot tolerate as many chemicals.  Probably the most horrifying disease is Blue Baby Syndrome, or Methemoglobinemia, which results in decreased oxygen carrying capacity of hemoglobin in babies leading to death or other birth/developmental disorders (similar diseases can be caused by excess nitrates from cesspools of fecal matter from factory farms as described previously).

Pesticides are used extensively.  Most of us use them without a second thought.  But perhaps, we are doing more harm than good.  Imagine you are spraying some pesticides to kill off some Japanese beetles (the little iridescent buggers which eat all of your flower leaves).  You kill off most of them, but some survive.  They have a resistance to the chemical.  Now, these beetles reproduce and pass on their resistance to some of their offspring, so we spray more and more, to kill fewer and fewer beetles.  That is the story since the beginning of time: a process of coevolution between pests and pesticides.  Our response is to either increase the dosage of pesticides, or increase the toxicity of the chemicals, neither of which is good in the long run.  Because of genetic resistance, farmers can pay more and more for pest control programs that become less and less effective.

Another big problem with these pesticides is that they are nonspecific: they will kill most of the pests, but many of the pest’s natural predators as well!  Not to mention, when the pesticides are sprayed, some of the chemicals will end up in nearby natural areas like forests and streams, which will kill many species in the nearby area, limiting biodiversity.It turns out that pesticide use has not reduced US crop losses to pests, mostly because of genetic resistance and reduction of natural predators.  I am sure we all remember the effects of DDT as presented by Rachel Carson in Silent Spring.

Toxic Chemicals Being Sprayed

The Cosmic Perspective

Today, 50% of the world’s population is alive thanks to synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.  Don’t forget to couple that with the 40% alive thanks to antibiotics.  If the fact that fertilizers and pesticides are destroying the earth didn’t convince you that there is a problem, perhaps you wonder who is spraying these toxic chemicals.  More often than not it is migrant workers who are given little to no protection, causing serious medical conditions.  So what can we do to limit our and the earth’s exposure to pesticides?  Grow some of your own food using organic methods.  Wash and scrub fresh fruits and vegetables.  Eat less meat.  And, if you think that you cannot get around using some sort of pesticides, here are some tips.  Rotate the types of crops and adjust planting times to fool the pests.  Provide homes for pest enemies.  Inplant genetic resistance.  Use pheromones to lure pests into traps or attract natural predators into crop fields.  By changing our habits, if only a little bit, we can make a big difference.

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