Category Archives: Science

Investing in the Future

stock-arctic-sea-ice-2Stocks, houses, cars: these are the normal things that come to mind when we talk about “investing”. Money and the future are always intertwined. However, no amount of money in the world will do anything is we do not invest in the future of the health of our planet.

Ice levels in the artic continue to decline. In a paper from Nature Climate Change it has been reported that CO2 and human activities are responsible for near 2/3rds of this Artic sea ice loss.

If we don’t curb emissions we’ll lose this sea ice as well as many species that rely on it like Polar Bears. The rising tide that will happen when we lose this ice will impact all coastal cities that are at or below sea level.

Investing in our planet’s future is important if we not only care about nature but the safety of our own coastal cities.

Hawaiian Biodiversity

Na Pali Coast, Kauai, Hawaii

The Hawaiian Islands are a unique place. Strange birds, tropical fish, migrating whales. However in recent centuries many non-indigenous animals have started to take over the islands. These animals have a big impact on the biodiversity in the area, but recent analysis says that Hawaii’s unique animals and plant life have been declining for long before the introduction of non-native species—in fact the University of California, Berkley says that the native life has been declining for millions of years.

Shrinking land areas of the older islands puts stress on the life there. The only island growing is the big island after all, so the rest are giving less and less space to the various birds, insects, spiders, and plants there (there are no native mammals on the islands). At a certain point this means extinction.

 

Plant Intelligence

plantsWe are well experienced in knowing that many other forms of life have conscious intelligence. ravens use tools, elephants form complex emotional relationships with their counterparts, chimps and other apes have been seen using plant matter as umbrellas in the rain. There is no doubt that animals hold levels of complex intelligence, but have you ever wondered if plants do? If not you should.

Children have long asked their parents if plants can feel being eaten. We often rebuke them and deny that—but the truth is plants are more aware than we realize. IFLScience says “A small, flowering plant called Arabidopsis thaliana can hear the vibrations that caterpillars trigger when they chew on its leaves. According to a new study, the plants can hear danger loud and clear, and they respond by launching a chemical defense.” And this is just one example among many others.

To apply the idea of “intelligence” it is often said that you need a brain to truly qualify, but is that true if plants can sound the alarm of danger? That is an awareness. So where is the line drawn then? Because plants cannot really move in the way animals or humans can it is fair to say that to survive they must be very aware. They understand what is going on around them from the soil conditions to moisture, threats to pollution. That’s sensory processing. Roots grow towards nutrition and know to avoid other roots, but are fine with hitting up against intimate objects. There is evidence that fungi communicate to their tree hosts to help the chances of that trees survival. Could we see this as a form of corporation? A clear form of some level of intelligence?

Plants are more complicated than what we give them credit for, and it is time to consider them a bit more.

Save the Planet with a Garden

vegetable-gardenThinking of a home garden evokes a lot of imagery; big white houses, lots of green, older women bent lovingly over their growing plants. However, gardening is not limited to this ideal image—starting your own produce centered garden is easy, accessible, and a great way to start taking small steps to saving the planet.

Reducing your carbon footprint by starting production of food at home is more important than you might think. On average 1,500 miles is traveled before food ever winds up on a plate. Imagine all the gasoline needed to make it to your grocer, imagine all the energy wasted on keeping the produce fresh. Burning fossil fuels is not only bad for us, but it is also bad for the very food that is grown and transported all the way to our homes. Climate change could easily render certain foods extinct.

Growing your own food allows you to control the pesticides that go into crafting your garden. The EPA considers 60% of herbicides, 90% of fungicides, and 30% of insecticides carcinogenic. Obviously that is no good, and certainly something we need to watch out for. What easier way to control how much pesticides go into your food than growing it yourself.

A home garden can be done wherever you live, whether it is a large house or a small apartment. While making a garden in a large space is much more simple, being crafty about your small space doesn’t have to complicated. Window boxes, small balcony potted plants, and community gardens are easy fixes to making a place to produce food even in the smallest of apartments.

There is no reason not to give it a shot!

Animal Hybrids and Human Replacement Organs  

p04nb0mqAs the waiting lists for organ replacements grows by the day scientists have long been trying to find ways for patients to get the organs they need to save their lives. There simply is no other way for someone who needs a new heart or lung to go without, they will die without the life-saving donation. This has always meant taking organs from living relatives if the needed replacement is not vital to survival (like a kidney or even a lung), or from the recently deceased in the case of something that is needed to live (like a heart). Of course that makes these all the more difficult to procure.

Here we step from reality though into science fiction. Biologists have reported that they can now replace a patient’s failing organs with ones taken from the person’s own cells and grown within an animal. This could possibly improve the chances of not having the organ be rejected by the body after transplant because it is developed from the person’s own stem cells.

The organs would be grown in large animals like pigs that are chimeras, animals composed of two different genomes. This is made by implanting human stem cells into the pig embryo early, meanings the animal would be made of a mixture of human and pig cells.

The question then becomes the ethics of all this. What does it mean when an animal also contains human cells? Is it entitled to human rights? How will these animals be kept? What is their future after they’ve made the organ needed for the transplant? It is unclear what the future of this project will bring, but surely something we should keep an eye on.

The Mysterious Ceres

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The search for habitable planets has always run into one big problem: no water on these space bound spheres. Water is a vital source of life, finding it on another planet is always a big boon in the ideas of trying to get out there to colonize another world.

Well, now NASA can add a new planet—albeit a dwarf one—to the list of planets with a form of water on the surface: Ceres. First discovered in 1772 by Johann Elert Bode, Ceres is the largest object in the asteroid belt that sits between Mars and Jupiter. It has a rocky core and now is confirmed to have water ice in one of its many shadowy regions that never see the light of day. These regions are about 350 degrees below zero!

Water ice is common on the dwarf planet, much more than previously thought—there could even be ice volcanoes that spout ice mixed with mud and salt. All of this makes it clear that at some point Ceres had liquid water.

What does this mean for us? Not much now, but as time goes on and space travel gets increasingly more common for us as humans we could find ourselves ready to look into a little planet that has the possibility for liquid water.

Fish Have Feelings Too

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Fish have long been thought of as creatures without feeling and a lack of intellect. We make jokes about their lack of memory, and have overall desensitized ourselves to them. Few people will stand up and say their favorite animal is a fish, they simply are not very beloved by humans. However, what if you knew they actually had the capacity for a while breadth of feelings?

Jonathan Balcombe, director of animal sentience at the Humane Society Institute for Science claims that fish are much more complex than what we give them credit for. Experiments have shown that fish will respond to being stroked, it actually reduces stress hormones in their bodies. Additionally, they are able to recognize faces within large groups, and pick out people they have bonds with.

These animals have cognitive and emotional lives, much more so than we have previously assumed. There are 33,000 species of sea and freshwater fish, I think it is time to give them some of their dues.

Nature Can Heal Itself

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Often it seems we see huge headlines that scream out to us about the plight of our environment. These headlines are often grim, and before going forward it is important to note that we should always heed these warnings. Our planet is in danger, our oceans and forests are under attack by multiple forces from climate change to pollution and everything in between. However, we also need to take the time to observe and learn from every small success we have in regaining a healthy world. Recently news has broken that the Atlantic Ocean might well be healing itself.

Tuna officially contains less mercury. It is believed that reduced coal emissions have started to make this fish a bit safer to eat (though it is good to note that women of child-bearing age should always avoid Bluefin Tuna in case of a pregnancy, as well as children themselves—as any level of mercury is so harmful for their development). A new study finds that mercury levels have declined by about 19 percent between 2004 and 2012 in Tuna.

Coal has been on the decline for a while, which not only means less emissions from the fuel source but also less and less plants being created in the first place. This is small, but evidence that our actions make a difference. Imagine what could happen if we could find ways to offset carbon emissions even more. Our fish could be free of many of these toxic chemicals that not only hurt them, but ourselves as we consume them. We must see this good news and continue to work to free the world from the forces that hurt it.

To Mars We Go?

This computer-generated view depicts part of Mars at the boundary between darkness and daylight, with an area including Gale Crater beginning to catch morning lightSpace travel has long been on the minds of the human race. In 1835 the Great Moon Hoax brought us the modern fever of wondering if there is life out in the stars. The Sun, a New York newspaper, reported fake stories about fantastical lifeforms found on the moon observed through earth bound telescopes. Since then of course, we’ve traveled to the moon and back and realized there are no trees, oceans, or anything near what we can call evidence of intelligent life out on the moon. Our attention seemed from that point to quickly swerve to travel to other planets, particularly Mars.

Mars has become Earth’s “backup plan”. Similar in size and with suitable gravity, we’ve seen it as a place that we will one day inhabit—maybe in the event that Earth is beyond saving. Getting there has never been more of reachable goal than it is today; technical readiness, public interest, and political will are finally all aligned to get human beings there. Both NASA and SpaceX have invested interests in getting us to the Red Planet in the next 20 years.

How will humans fare on this new planet however? Mars, while similar in size to Earth, is a much more unforgiving environment. No plants grow in its dry soil, there is no liquid water, and we cannot breathe much needed oxygen in its environment. Our lives on Mars would be limited to being indoors, or in complex space suites whenever we get the chance to step foot outside. We’d battle the fatigue of being constantly being cooped up and surrounded by others. We’ll need to provide shelter to these pilgrims; create ways to grow our own food and provide the inhabitants with clean water. Additionally, astronauts going to Mars will need protection from the extremely high levels of radiation out on the surface of the Red Planet.

In the face of all this, we as humans continue to press forward. Truly the spirit of explorations is shown at its best in these efforts. While only time will tell what will become of our attempts to colonize Mars, we know that the idea of space travel will always light up our minds with wonder and excitement.

The Plight of being Ugly and Endangered

The phrase “endangered animals” brings various images to mind. Tigers, pandas and the other endearing poster children for dwindling species likely spring up. We admire these animals for their attractive qualities and those traits are often used in campaigns for their benefit. Sleek cats and cute bears adorn fliers and other media that speak to the cause. What happens, however, when the endangered animal isn’t cute? Frankly, what happens when the endangered animal is just plain ugly? They’re certainly no less worthy of saving and no less important to our world, but they just don’t have the appeal of their majestic counterparts. How do we include them in our efforts to save animals on the brink of extinction?

In light of this issue, increasingly more campaigns and societies are coming forward to stop those not-so-cute creatures from disappearing. The World Wildlife Fund, a powerhouse in terms of raising funds for conservation, put this issue in perspective for Bluefin Tuna in their 2011 campaign. Fish might not be the first animal you think of when you consider endangered animals. Nevertheless, their numbers are quickly dropping as a result of overfishing. The campaign uses the face of popular endangered animals as masks on the Bluefins, asking the question, “Would you care more if I was a … ?”

wwf-tunapandaVia WWF

Is it true? Would we care more if these fish were cuter, or if they just weren’t fish? Who will stand up for the “ugly” creatures? There is someone:  Simon Watt and his Ugly Animal Preservation Society. The society was set up to shine a light on those less than attractive animals who need our help. You can find this community–and a book published under the same name–at uglyanimalsoc.com. By hosting gigs with comedians and otherwise spreading the word, they’re reaching out to speak for animals that just don’t strike the cute chord, like the Purple Pig Nosed Frog or the Blobfish. In their words, “we can’t all be pandas”.

We need to remember these less than cute creatures and their importance in the world. They deserve our attention, too.