anticipation, energy, environment, science

Hydrogen. (What’s not to like?)

This summer I interviewed Kristie Boering, a professor of atmospheric chemistry at UC Berkeley. We talked about the potential environmental side effects of moving to a hydrogen economy. Our discussion, boiled down to about 800 words, is in the current issue of California magazine. Boering is incredibly articulate, and I learned a lot in the process.

If we were to go to a hydrogen fuel cell economy and we produce a lot of hydrogen, and some fraction escapes (because it’s notoriously difficult to contain that small molecule), then we might see emissions equal to or greater than what’s produced naturally. Because it’s such a reactive gas…that could change the balance of chemistry in our atmosphere.

You can read it here.

China, cool, earth, light, science

Nerd Ecstasy: Exploratorium Eclipse Extravaganza

wide view of the total solar eclips in china on august 1, 2008, from the exploratorium

This morning, NASA and the Exploratorium webcast live from Xinjiang, China. You can watch their hour-long production at the Exploratorium’s Total Solar Eclipse web site. (That’s a photo from the Exploratorium blog above.)

The broadcast starts about 30 minutes before totality, when the moon completely blocks out the sun. The first fifteen minutes include a lesson from scientists on the ground about what happens during an eclipse. That’s followed by some back-and-forth between the scientists and a local Chinese news anchor, which includes a few minutes of classic Chinese journalism/propaganda/travelogue that touts the wonders of Xinjiang. Xinjiang has quite a few ethnic minorities, notably the Uighur, some of whom agitate for independence from China. Words like peace, harmony, and unity are sprinkled in this section of the show. The astro-drama begins at about the 33-minute mark.

Ah, to be in China again. The story I want to see stemming from this is the story of Yiwu County, perched among desert and mountains, a 16 hour drive from Urumqi and its airport, with, according to Wikipedia, 20,000 inhabitants. Over the last couple days, busloads of telescope-toting nerds and media have laid siege. In anticipation, the government set up a tent city to accommodate all 10,000 of them (as well as what one scientist calls a “Gobi Stonehenge.”). All that planning leading up to a two hour show. And now that this place has had its moment in the sun, so to speak, what next?

Here’s what the moon’s shadow looks like on earth during a total solar eclipse. Taken on the Russian Space Station Mir, 11 August 1999.

View of total solar eclipse from Russian Space Station Mir. 11 August 1999.

The next total solar eclipse is scheduled for 22 July 2009. Totality will occur from northern India, across Bhutan, and along the Chang Jiang (Yangtze River) to Shanghai.

cool, really?, science

The BigDog

Here is an amazing feat of engineering.The vehicles and robots from Star Wars were always fun to watch, but seemed less feasible, because they had articulated legs and moved like animals. Wheels seem much more efficient and, frankly, easier. But look at this:Notice how that guy nonchalantly kicks BigDog about 35 seconds in? It’s just a machine, but it feels weird to see somebody kicking something that looks so alive. You know, if people get used to that kind of behavior, and then the robots gain intelligence–this is why they revolt in the movies, isn’t it? More at Boston Dynamics’s web page, and scattered around Youtube.

animals, science

Cats: Genetically Robust, Geographically Interesting, Occasionally Mislabeled

mosaic.jpgThe Post is running an article in the A section about divining the origins of the domestic cat.

They come from the Fertile Crescent, their domestication coincides with the rise of agriculture, and they can be divided into four geo-genetic groups: Europe, Mediterranean, East Africa, Asia. (Why not West Africa? How did they get specific on that, especially in comparison to Asia?) The Persian is apparently not Persian; the Japanese bobtail probably isn’t Japanese. Also, cat breeds aren’t so terribly inbred as certain dog breeds.

In India last January, I saw plenty of dogs, but no cats (or none that I recall). Some rats, which makes me wonder what happened to the cat rung in the animal hierarchy. In China, a few cats, mostly pets. Here in San Francisco, I rarely see cats on the street, though the SPCA is overflowing with them.

I don’t come from cat people, but my girlfriend is one, so I live with a cat (pictured here). My girlfriend’s expert guess is that Mosaic is some blend of calico and tortoiseshell. Which seems reasonable enough. We got her at the SPCA, origins unknown.

animals, consumption, environment, food, journalism, science, unfortunate

Learn Something New: Honeybees

The amazing, disappearing honeybee has become the sleeper hit of journalism. It has slowly gained momentum over the last nine or ten months and now it seems like just about everyone has heard of it, even if they don’t really know anything about it. Most coverage follows the same beaten path: bees are disappearing, did you know that people truck bees around the country?, etc. It’s all very interesting, in a panicky sort of way (kind of like the disappearing banana, though that never tugged at America’s heartstrings like this story).

070710_science_honeybeetn.jpgAnd then Heather Smith writes in Slate about why maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised or so worried. Because the honeybee that we’ve come to think we know and love is already long gone. Smith notes, “The only honeybees left—i.e., the ones that started disappearing in October—had become the cows of the insect world: virtually extinct in the wild, hopped up on antibiotics, and more likely to reproduce via artificial insemination than by their own recognizance.”

Illustration from Slate by Robert Neubecker.

science, television

Back to Blogging (we hope), but first, Mr. Wizard

It is that rare thing to see a new post on this blog. But there’s all this blogging going on at Wired, where I’m hanging out for the summer, and that’s spurred me to get back into it. Keep an eye out, though; this blog might be moving.

But first, some news. Mr. Wizard died this afternoon. I thought he was great. Some have disagreed with me about him in the past, citing unhappy memories of being forced to sit through his show in class. But I didn’t see it in class, and only had cable for a couple of years as a kid when he was on Nickelodeon, all of which to say that I rarely saw the show, which made it all the more interesting.

Don Herbert, Mr. Wizard, in a file photo from the LA Times.

Mr. Wizard made science real. How else would I have learned that you can drink grape juice while standing on your head?

And he left his impression. I didn’t grow up in a place with big museums or, frankly, creative or curious people. This may be why I’m so ambivalent about criticizing television. It was shows like Mr. Wizard and 3-2-1 Contact and numerous public television programs that instilled in me a childhood sense of wonder in the wider world.

And that sense is what I’ve been chasing the last several years. It’s helped me get around on a couple of continents and into a couple of professions.

I suppose I’m sending a note of thanks, then, to Mr. Wizard and those people who produce shows like his. We’re watching.

art, environment, really?, science

Cold As Hell?

On Monday, as I was about to go out to lunch, I peered through my window to see if it was raining (it has rained every day for the last two weeks, it seems). I mentioned to a colleague that it doesn’t look like it will rain. “No,” interjected someone walking by, “but it’s cold as hell.”

Cold as hell. Or is that, cold as Hell? That seems like a contradiction in terms. Hell is hot, right? So if it really is cold outside, it’s probably not as cold as Hell. Somewhere along the line, we divorced the simile “as hell” from its literal meaning (insofar as any location described by a religion is literal), and lower-cased the word in the process. Now it seems to mean “extremely.”

But what is the temperature of Hell? If you Google “temperature of hell,” you’ll get a hell of a lot of results, many having to do with the no doubt apocryphal student’s answer about whether Hell is endothermic or exothermic, and the much-cited calculation of the temperatures of Heaven and Hell based on Isaiah 30:26 and Revelations 21:8. (Apparently Heaven is hotter.) But maybe Hell really is cold. Parts, anyway. Dante, in his Inferno, describes individuals trapped underwater, cursed to wallow in mud under cold rain and hail, and frozen in a lake. Why not? Those all sound pretty miserable, too. (He also describes people gnawing on each others heads.)

I am not so familiar with the Bible, but the Christian concept of Hell seems to leave a lot of room for interpretation. Maybe our ideas of Hell are the constructs of a culture or the ideas of an individual (like the belief that souls are immortal, which, my friend Will tells me, was not always the case). It seems likely that, for example, the vision of Hieronymus Bosch—whose third panel, “Hell,” from the Haywain triptych is displayed here (see also the Garden of Earthly Delights and the Last Judgment on that page)—that Bosch’s vision is a determinative element in our modern conception of Hell. But his Hell is also populated by lots of interesting creatures, little kiwi birds and strange musical instruments.

The San Francisco Chronicle science writer Keay Davidson published a story Tuesday about this season’s Bay Area weather. He notes, for example, that as of March 1, San Francisco’s winter rainfall is 135 percent higher than average. And, “a forecaster with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center in Camp Springs, Md., said in early February that Californians could expect a slightly drier, warmer period into April because of La Niña,” a point I repeated on this blog when we had a spell of famously Mediterranean weather. (That NOAA forecaster could not be reached for comment in time for Davidson’s story. He or she is probably just not answering the phone.)

“In recent days, average Bay Area temperatures have been about 15 degrees below normal,” according to the article. That’s why we’ve had snow at higher altitudes and icy road conditions leading to accidents all over the place, including last Saturday morning’s 28-car pileup on the 101 between the Golden Gate Bridge and Sausalito. The article on that accident includes a handy list of tips for driving in cold-weather conditions, which most people here never have to do. For residents of the Bay Area, true winter weather is something to which we choose to subject ourselves, not something we are forced to endure. And then, we subject ourselves mainly in the name of having fun on ski slopes—those of us who can afford it, anyway. We aren’t used to shivering through the streets; doesn’t matter that most of the nation deals with this for at least three months of the year. And I’m numbering myself among the afflicted, because although I’ve spent years in Alaska, New Hampshire, Maine, and Nebraska, four years in San Francisco have spoiled me for winters.

It’s raining, it’s snowing, it’s windy, it’s hailing, it’s icy. It’s miserable. It’s just cold as hell.