14 December 2011

Five Interesting Things I Heard About: Nuclear Energy

I’m back with another installment in my new series, “Five Interesting Things I Heard About: [blank].” In the first installment, I relayed ~five interesting comments that University of Wisconsin – Madison mechanical engineering professor Sandy Klein made about solar energy. Klein, also the director of the Solar Energy Lab at UW, was a guest lecturer in a course I’m enrolled in this semester, the topic of which is energy resources … go figure.

(Image of U.S. government in public domain)
We have had quite a few distinguished and fascinating guest speakers actually during the class, each of whom addressed various types of energy, along with aspects of energy science, resource availability and current and future requirements. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to rattle off five interesting things from each of them. But, I did want to at least get to one speaker: Paul Wilson, a nuclear engineer at UW – Madison who works on both technical and policy issues related to nuclear energy. Wilson spoke a few weeks ago about nuclear fuel cycles, reactor technology and nuclear waste polices among other topics.

While he made many interesting points, here are five that stuck out to me:

08 December 2011

A Bit of Bilingual Science Outreach

When you can’t bring the masses to science, bring science to the masses. At least that’s the approach recently for many science outreach programs, including Explorando las Ciencias, or Exploring the Sciences, a bilingual community event held Oct. 23 on Madison’s south side that catered to both Spanish and English speakers. 

30 November 2011

Clustering of Large Earthquakes Explained by Random Variability?

Sumatra, 2004. Chile, 2010. Japan, 2011. Odds are these names and dates ring a bell. The scars are still too fresh and widespread for them to have slipped from memory. They identify, of course, the three largest recorded earthquakes that have occurred in the last 45 years — with magnitudes of 9.1, 8.8 and 9.0, respectively. Add in the 2005 magnitude 8.6 quake that also hit Sumatra, likely triggered by the 2004 event, and you’re talking about the four largest earthquakes in roughly the last half century all occurring within a few years of each other. It seems strange that they have been so bunched up, doesn’t it? 
An aerial view of Minato, Japan taken about a week after the
March 11, 2011 magnitude 9.0 earthquake and resulting tsunami that
devastated large swaths of the Japanese coast. (Credit: Lance Cpl.
Ethan Johnson, U.S. Marine Corps, Creative Commons Attribution
2.0 Generic)
In fact, there was a similar sequence of major earthquakes in the middle of the last century as well: Kamchatka, magnitude 9.0, 1952; Chile, magnitude 9.5, 1960 (the largest known earthquake); and Alaska, magnitude 9.2, 1964. No other 9.0+ events were recorded in the 20th century. Throw in a few more 8.5+ quakes in the same time frame, and you’ve got quite a cluster of destructive temblors occurring over just a decade and a half.

Contrast these turbulent stretches with the decades-long periods before 1950 and from about 1965 until 2004, when the planet was relatively calm, seismically speaking, and it certainly appears that these enormous earthquakes timed so close together are connected by more than coincidence, right? And if so, shouldn’t we be expecting more major quakes in the near future as one popular author suggested following the earthquake off the coast of Japan last spring?

21 November 2011

How the Webb Space Telescope got its groove ... er ... funding, back

 After several months of uncertainty, the future of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) appears to be secure, at least for another year. Lawmakers in both the House and Senate voted last Thursday to pass an appropriations bill (pdf) that, among its many other allocations, includes $530 million in funding for JWST for fiscal year 2012.

An artist's rendering of the James Webb Space Telescope
(image credit: NASA)
Since construction of the massive instrument — slated to succeed and surpass Hubble — began in 2008, it has been beset by delays and cost overruns that have earned it many critics. While NASA originally proposed a $1.6 billion price tag, that number has continued to climb and the most recent estimate is closer to $8.7 billion. Similarly, the launch date, originally set for 2011, has been pushed back several times and now is scheduled for 2018.

An independent review (pdf) released in late 2010 concluded that the project’s problems had been caused primarily by administrative failures and chronic underfunding from the beginning rather than technical issues. Whatever the cause, the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies — a part of the House Appropriations Committee — had had enough. In July, the subcommittee proposed cutting $1.6 billion from NASA’s overall budget compared to 2011, and explicitly called for the JWST project to be terminated in its FY2012 draft spending bill. This prompted a significant outcry from many (though not all) scientists who see JWST as imperative to achieving priority research goals. Then, in September, the Senate Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations Subcommittee, headed by long-time Webb supporter Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., released its own FY2012 draft spending bill (pdf) in which JWST faired far better.

14 November 2011

Five Interesting Things I Heard About: Solar Energy

One of the great things about living in a university town like Madison, Wis. is that there is a never-ending supply of interesting talks to attend and scholars willing to give those talks. While the talks are rarely dull and I do my best to pay attention, I’ve found that much of the material presented often escapes me soon afterward. You know, you get to worrying about work or school or what’s on your grocery list (daily life, in other words) and you forget the interesting stem cell development, the surprising statistic about corn ethanol production, or the fascinating hypothesis about mantle hotspot dynamics that you just heard. It’s not easy retaining so much information, even when it is interesting, surprising and fascinating stuff.

(Image credit: (c) pixor, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
In the spirit of trying to preserve some of this awesome info that might otherwise be lost, I thought I’d mix things up with the blog here and introduce a new series of posts entitled “Five Interesting Things I Heard About: [blank].” This is a largely self-motivated exercise of course, but I hope I manage to keep it interesting for you, the reader, as well.

The first installment comes from a guest lecture by Sandy Klein, a professor of mechanical engineering and director of the Solar Energy Lab at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, as part of a course about energy resources. Klein spoke about the basics of energy use in the U.S., including solar, where solar technology is now and where it’s headed:

31 October 2011

A ‘Now What?’ Moment for Climate Change Skeptics

Skeptics and denialists of climate change lost a powerful voice recently. What’s more? It was one of their very few scientific voices.

Richard Muller, a physicist at the Universityof California at Berkeley, has long raised questions about the data used by climate researchers and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to chart the planet’s temperature record over the last 200 years or so: the chief evidence of recent and rapid warming. Among the questions were whether the data and the stations that collected it were of sufficient quality to allow for a valid estimate of warming; whether the data had been selectively chosen, or cherry-picked, to show a warming trend that would otherwise not be reflected; and whether urban heat-islands were skewing global average temperatures.

In an October 21 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Muller laid out a case for climate skepticism based on these questions. “Without good answers to all these complaints,” he wrote, “global-warming skepticism seems sensible.”

08 October 2011

New "family friendly" policies from NSF (Part 2)

Earlier this week I wrote about policy changes announced by NSF that are designed to provide researchers in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) with greater flexibility to attend to family concerns while continuing their research efforts. Among the changes, which extend certain current policies regarding the grant award and review process, are provisions to allow for grant deferrals or no-cost extensions for up to a year when researchers need to take time off to raise a newborn child, for example. The measures are aimed particularly at retaining female researchers in academia by easing career-versus-family decisions.

For an informed opinion on the challenges for women in academia and NSF’s announcement, I talked to Professor Jean Bahr, a hydrogeologist at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Following her Ph.D. and a brief stint with the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, Calif., Bahr has been on the faculty in the Department of Geoscience at UW – Madison since 1987. Among many other achievements during that time, she has served as president of the Geological Society of America and as chair of her department.

04 October 2011

NSF’s new “family-friendly” policies attempt to boost representation of females in tenured STEM academic positions

The challenges of beginning an academic research career in science or engineering are many. Beyond the intelligence, skill and ingenuity it takes to carry out meaningful research, scientists and engineers seeking tenured faculty positions are responsible for bringing in and managing much of their own funding through grants, publishing (and, increasingly, publicizing) their work, advising students and post-docs, and maintaining often-demanding teaching loads.

(Image credit: Argonne National Lab,
Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic)
The prospect of such a full schedule leaves precious little time for life’s other activities and sometimes leads researchers to view decisions of further pursuing a career versus, oh say, starting or caring for a family, as either-or propositions. Career-versus-family decisions are among the factors that have historically acted against increases in the number of women, in particular, who achieve tenured academic positions. Though the number is improving, it still lags proportionally compared to the number of women who pursue undergraduate or graduate study in science and engineering, and the number who attain advanced degrees.

According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics as stated (pdf) by the National Science Foundation (NSF), women held 28 percent of full-time tenured or tenure-track positions in science and engineering in 2006 compared to just 10 percent in 1979. Among doctorate degrees awarded in science or engineering in 2009, though, 41 percent were earned by women. And in recent years women have accounted for more than 50 percent of doctorates awarded in all fields.

With new measures announced last week at the White House, NSF is trying to raise awareness of and make a dent in this under-representation. Saying that it is women who “more often than not are the ones who suspend or surrender prominent professional careers to take on the responsibilities associated with starting a family and caring for dependent family members,” NSF director Dr. Subra Suresh introduced an agency initiative aimed at alleviating the stress involved in choosing between family and career. Such efforts, he said, are “essential to our future innovation, economic prosperity and global leadership.”

24 September 2011

Plus or Minus … Oh, Nevermind

I’m blasting Nirvana’s seminal album Nevermind as I write this … I have to stop every few words to rock out on my air drums and sing along to the chorus (“Hello, hello, hello, hello, hellllo”) of “Smells LikeTeen Spirit,” the album’s anthemic lead track. It’s hard to believe that it’s been 20 years since the album was released. Twenty years to the day, in fact, as it was released on September 24, 1991. And after that long, it still never fails to get my adrenaline flowing.

Authentic "grunge" apparel worn
by yours truly, circa 1991.
Actually, I should say after about 19 years and 9 or 10 months; I first heard SLTS over Thanksgiving weekend 1991 (or was it Christmas?) when my oldest brother — having returned home from college for the holiday — excitedly told me about this cool new song he’d just heard. What did I do? I did what any 12-year-old kid with a budding interest in popular music (and access to cable TV) did at that time … I turned on MTV, of course. When I flipped over to the station, there it was; the music video was just starting. Perfect timing. I was hooked.

I’ll leave the long homages and retrospectives to others better suited (See NPR’s coverage from this past week or the Experience MusicProject’s exhibit). But, as my own form of minor tribute, allow me to present one scientist’s guide to Nirvana, annotated with the relevant discipline with which I’m certain the band members were fascinated. Enjoy:

21 September 2011

Good news for Webb Space Telescope; Bad news for other scientists?

A full-size model of the James Webb Space Telescope outside Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. (Image credit: NASA)
Perhaps for this post I should temporarily rename the blog to Plus AND Minus Science. Allow me to explain …

Last week, the Senate Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations Subcommittee released its recommendations for FY2012 funding (pdf) for the various departments and agencies it oversees. Of note for us science types are details about NIST, NSF and, of course … [drumroll] … NASA! So how do the numbers look? Well, not great at first glance, although “not great” might be the best that could have been hoped for given the current economic climate. The biggest (proportional) hit is taken by NIST, which would see its 2012 funding cut by 9.3 percent compared to 2011 levels and by over 30 percent relative to the administration’s request. By comparison, the other agencies fair well: the recommendations would see NSF’s budget cut by 2.4 percent relative to 2011 and 13.7 percent below the 2012 request, while NASA’s would be lowered by 2.8 and 4.2 percent, respectively. So those are some of the minuses. But where do the pluses come in (other than suggesting that the cuts aren’t as bad as they could be)?

20 September 2011

I'm back...and I'm on Twitter!

Greetings! Thanks for coming back for more +/- Science. (Or, if you're a first timer, welcome, welcome.)

It's good to be back myself. Naturally, I didn't think I'd be away so long...I spent most of my time this summer in Washington D.C. and away from Wisconsin. Weather-wise, not a good a trade-off. But, on the plus side, I got to work for (*warning: plug alert*) a great outlet named EARTH Magazine for several months. In case you don't believe me, this was my office space (don't mind the apple core)...

Pretty nice digs
I'm looking forward to adding posts regularly again and hopefully generating some interesting conversations.  One final note...I'm on Twitter, finally. Caught the bug over the summer tweeting for EARTH, and now I'm striking out on my own. Follow me at @Tim_Oleson. You can view recent tweets on the sidebar at right.

Thanks again for reading.

03 May 2011

Fun with SAP (super absorbent polymer)

Recently I've been having the urge to play with (science) toys.  The way I see it, there are three probable explanations:

1) I need a creative outlet for my inner, hands-on geek (since I don't work in a lab anymore).
2) I am secretly jealous every year when I buy sciencey toys as gifts for my nieces and nephews every year.
3) It is a reaction to this whole aging business.

Regardless of the root cause(s), sometimes you just have to look yourself in the eye and say,  

"I need to buy that packet of Grow Snow hanging from a display in the grocery store cereal aisle.  Better yet, make it two packets...for my sanity."

Followed by,

"And now I need to play with it."

With that said, please enjoy the fruits of my self-indulgence...

25 April 2011

Crowdsourcing Science

In this age of the ever-expanding scope and complexity of cutting-edge science, researchers are increasingly using any and all resources at their disposal to expand their capacity for data collection and analysis.  This may mean borrowing time on massive, multi-user super-computers to run complex simulations (climate models, for example), or it may mean larger and larger interdisciplinary collaborations among scientists who each have their own equipment and expertise.

In this age of ever-expanding wired interconnectivity, there are also a growing number of opportunities for members of the everyday public to voluntarily offer up their services in the name of scientific awareness and progress.  These citizen scientists have been helping in everything from surveys of wildlife (see, for instance, my last post about the updated winter wolf count in Wisconsin, which relies in part on observations from knowledgeable amateurs) to surveys of interstellar gravitational waves.

17 April 2011

Two Updates for Wisconsin Wolf Watchers

Photo by Christian Mehlfuhrer on fotopedia
The gray wolf (Canis lupus), like other apex predators, has been both feared and revered for centuries.  On the one hand, it is a wild animal that poses threats to the safety of people and their domesticated livestock and pets.  On the other, it is an important part of the ecosystem who has suffered the loss of much of its natural habitat due to human encroachment.

In the U.S., after being eradicated across most of its historic range as contact between wolves and humans increased, protection and conservation efforts enacted in the last several decades have helped the wolf population rebound.

I recently wrote about the status of the gray wolf in Wisconsin, where the population, thought to be zero in 1960, was estimated a year ago at about 700.  This past Friday brought news from the state’s Department of Natural Resources that the total is now around 825, more than double the management goal that the state set in the late 1990s.

Most of this recovery has occurred in the past decade, during which time the gray wolf has been reclassified under the federal Endangered Species Act from endangered to threatened once in 2003, and delisted altogether from protection on two separate occasions in 2007 and 2009.  In each case, though, the decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been overturned by federal courts under pressure from a handful of conservation and animal rights groups.

12 April 2011

'Keep Looking Up': An Overdue Ode to Jack Horkheimer

(Credit: NASA and ESA; obtained via Wikimedia Commons and subsequently adapted.)
"Confused about the cosmos?  Can’t tell a planet from a star?  Then give us just five minutes, and we’ll show you what they are.”

So says the introduction to Star Gazer, the televised short that each week showcases current sightseeing opportunities for the backyard astronomer—from streaking comets to unusual celestial alignments.

I don’t recall ever seeking out Star Gazer, which has aired on public television since 1976.  Never recorded it, never Tivo-ed it, never made a note to watch it.  Its brief five-minute duration (or the still shorter one-minute condensed version) and irregular placement between full-length programs or immediately preceding PBS’ late night signoff would make it difficult to do so anyhow. 

On the rare occasions, however, when my TV-watching trajectory does coincide with the program’s appearance, I find it almost as enthralling as if it were a solar eclipse or a supermoon itself.  This is as much the case now as it was when I was younger.

When it came on shortly before 1 a.m. central time the other night, after a performance by Spoon on Austin City Limits and just before PBS went dark for the evening, true to form, my hand froze on the remote, and I had the same reaction as I always do:

03 April 2011

Liquefaction and the Dancing Red Giraffes

This post follows on others (here and here) I have recently shared regarding the study of and hazards associated with earthquakes in the Puget Sound region in Washington state.

Among the fascinating stories I had the privilege of hearing while visiting PNSN and the Seattle field office of the USGS was a firsthand account of liquefaction in action during the 2001 Nisqually earthquake from USGS geophysicist Bob Norris.

Liquefaction is the process whereby dry sandy or silt-rich soil becomes a water-saturated slurry and loses its mechanical strength.  It is a frequent side-effect of earthquake-induced ground shaking, and is a particular hazard throughout the Puget Sound region where structures are built on unlithified till and deltaic deposits.

"Big Steel Giraffes": Commercial shipping cranes at the Port of Seattle.  Harbor Island (center) is tucked between SoDo (foreground) and West Seattle (background).  (Image by Vmenkov via Wikimedia Commons)
On the morning of February 28, 2001, as Norris arrived to collect data from a seismometer located on Harbor Island in Seattle, his truck began rocking “from side to side.”  It took him several seconds to realize what was happening, and although there was no noise from the shaking, it was strong enough that he “thought I was going to get whiplash,” he said.

26 March 2011

Shake, rattle, and roll...to scale

Last week was spring break here in Madison, WI.  It’s been a while since I took part in the annual mass exodus, but I decided to take advantage of the time off, pack up, and get out of Dodge for a few days.  My destination was chilly, drizzly Seattle for an in-person crash course about the study of earthquakes and their associated dangers in the Puget Sound area.  I also went out to meet some of the people—both professional scientists and volunteer citizens—who are helping this effort along.

Spring Break 2011!  Downtown Seattle as seen from West Seattle across Elliott Bay.
The timing of my trip during the week after Japan’s subduction-related magnitude 9.0 Tohuku earthquake and the resulting tsunami, and not long after a shallow crustal temblor hit Christchurch, NZ, was purely coincidental.  It did, however, provide an engaging, albeit tragic, backdrop for discussing earthquake hazards in the area and individual motivations for contributing to the study of these hazards.  The susceptibility of the Puget Sound to both of these types of earthquakes, as well as to large deep earthquakes such as the 2001 Nisqually quake, and the parallels to these recent events is not lost on many in the region.

12 March 2011

A Whale (Shark) of a Mystery

If you have ever sat through Jaws or watched Discovery Channel’s annual lovefest, perhaps you have imagined your reaction at the sight of a massive shark heading straight for you.  Worse still, perhaps you have imagined yourself among a swirling frenzy of sharks, each awaiting its shot.  I have imagined this.  Between the dolphin-pitch squeaks of terror and a soiled wetsuit, it’s not a pretty picture.

As one approaches, I remember the advice I heard somewhere…go for the eyes and snout.  Stick and move!

Before I can lift a finger to fend it off, though, the moment passes by with little more than a glancing nudge from an animal whose front-end looks something like a 1990s Honda Civic.

Whale shark, Rhincodon typus (image from Wikimedia Commons).

Oh, PHEW!  It’s a whale shark frenzy I’m imagining, not one of their toothier cousins.

28 February 2011

Nisqually...10 Years On

Headline from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 1, 2001.

Earthquake occurrences in the past seven days.
(Screen grab from www.usgs.gov)

A quick glance at the USGS' running tally of recent earthquakes in the U.S. (right) reminds us of the country's most tectonically active areas .  It's pretty clear: California and Alaska, followed by several other geographic pockets of notable activity.  For residents of one of those pockets--Seattle and the greater Puget Sound area--the February 28 dateline on the map at right carries special significance.

Today is the 10th anniversary of the magnitude 6.8 Nisqually earthquake, which struck the area at 10:54 a.m. local time on Wednesday, February 28, 2001.  Although it ranks as only the 82nd largest earthquake by magnitude (by my count) in the U.S., it is the third largest on record and the most recent significant quake in Washington state.

The quake originated at a depth of 52 km in the subsurface Juan de Fuca plate, which is subducting under the North American plate in the Cascadia subduction zone.  The epicenter (47.15N 122.72W) was located toward the southern end of Puget Sound, 17.6 km northeast of Olympia, WA and 57.5 km south southwest of Seattle.

27 February 2011

Critique my writing, please

In the spirit of inviting folks to interact with my blog and hopefully improving my writing, I'm going to step out of my comfort zone and try something new.

Below, I've posted my first-ever official attempt at science writing that I prepared last fall as a journalism class assignment.  I'd like to invite readers to provide their critical review.  What do you like or dislike?  How is the lead? The structure? The quotes?  Does it keep your attention?  Does it provide sufficient and/or appropriate detail?  Etc. etc.

While this is partially a self-serving attempt to generate feedback, I hope the article (which wasn't published elsewhere) makes for interesting and useful reading.

But first, a little background...

The idea for this experiment struck me after reading a post by Anne Jefferson over at Highly Allochthonous (which I thoroughly enjoyed) about what scientists and journalists can learn from each other regarding how to write effectively about science for a broader, not-necessarily-expert audience.  The inspiration for her post, in turn, was the publication of two news pieces* in a recent issue of Nature that discussed two just-published studies** (in the same issue of Nature) linking a greater probability of extreme weather, specifically above-average rainfall and flooding, to anthropogenically-induced climate change.

21 February 2011

Bogged Down by the 2012 Science Budget

State of the Union addresses rarely stick with me.  Within a few days I’ve typically forgotten everything that was said, no matter how much I like or dislike the president at the time.  All that’s left afterward are vague recollections of vacuous promises about restoring America’s greatness and ensuring our future.  (Oh, and clapping, lots of clapping.)  I don’t know, does that make me a bad citizen?  Or is just that that’s what State of the Union addresses are—pep rallies, in effect, to briefly lift people’s spirits?

But boy, did President Obama catch my ear when he started talking about renewing national interest and investment in scientific research and innovation during last month’s speech.  I especially liked his line that, “It’s not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair.”  My geek heart skipped a beat when I heard that.  Now that’s the way to restore America’s greatness and ensure our future, I thought.  (Full disclosure: I also celebrated when Green Bay won the Super Bowl.)

16 February 2011

Road Trip Photo Appendix

Thought I'd slap up a few of my shots that didn't make the initial road trip post...some science(ish), some just for fun.

Keeping Portland Weird: OMSI, i.e., Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (0.000000002 astronomical units ≈ 300 m if I got the conversion right)

15 February 2011

The Joy of Road Tripping…with Geologists

Anyone who has ever willingly embarked on a road trip is no doubt aware that the enjoyment is more in the journey than in reaching your destination.  Or however the adage goes.  For history buffs, the joy might come from touring Civil War battlefields or traversing Route 66 in search of Americana.  For foodies, maybe its stopping off at a roadside diner for a taste of regional cuisine or seeking out the freshest farm-raised ingredients that does the trick. 

For geologists, professional and amateur alike, it’s simple.  It’s the rock below our feet and the rock towering over our heads.  It’s the physical and chemical processes that gave these rocks their distinct textures and flavors, and the tremendous forces that shape(d) them.  The biotic veneer that selectively coats the crust is fascinating and often beautiful in its own right, but for a geologist, it’s all about what’s underneath that counts.

My apologies for waxing philosophic.  I’ve got all this on the brain after returning from a long weekend of road tripping through the Cascades with two close friends—one a structural geologist and the other a seismologist.  What better way to see the mountains, right?  It’s like having a backstage pass: you get the insider’s scoop, far more interesting than the average self-guided tour.  Okay, so my friends aren’t the world’s foremost experts on the Cascades.  Nor are they park rangers who could sneak us up close and personal to the steaming vents of Mt. St. Helens.  Nonetheless, they are very bright, and they know a whole lot more than I do about these things (I was, after all, only a biogeochemist, as they jokingly remind me on occasion).

06 February 2011

An Abbreviated Numerical History of the Great New Madrid Earthquakes

200: Years since a series of massive earthquakes, originating in the subsurface New Madrid fault system of southeastern Missouri and northeastern Arkansas, began in 1811.  The quakes are some of the largest in U.S. history and are the largest ever (recorded) to occur east of the Rocky Mountains.

(Image courtesy of USGS)

4: Number of principal quakes that occurred during the series.  The first major quake occurred at 2:15 am local time on December 16, 1811, followed by the second five hours later.  The third occurred on January 23, 1812 and the fourth on February 7, 1812.  The second quake is sometimes regarded as an aftershock rather than a principal quake, because it was smaller and occurred so soon after the first.  About 200 aftershocks of magnitude 4.0 or greater were also recorded, along with numerous smaller quakes.

7.0: Minimum estimated magnitude (on the Richter scale) of each of the principal quakes according to the United States Geological Service.  Seismographs were not in use at the time in North America, so the magnitudes have been estimated by later researchers based on accounts of the earthquakes.  The USGS has estimated the magnitudes, in chronological order, as 7.7, 7.0, 7.5, and 7.7., although other estimates suggest that several of them were magnitude 8.0 or higher.  The largest earthquake ever recorded in the U.S. was magnitude 9.2, which occurred in Alaska on March 3, 1964.

29 January 2011

Kaboom! An undersea volcano blows its top…

This spectacular video of an erupting undersea volcano recently came through the geoscience grapevine, and thought I would share it here.  Enjoy!

According to the anonymous voice accompanying the video, the volcano is Kavachi (9.02° S 157.95° E), near the Solomon Islands.  The eruptive history of Kavachi has been recorded since 1939 and numerous periods of volcanism have been documented in that time.  Although the date of this video is uncertain, the most recent known eruption occurred in early April 2007 following a magnitude 8.1 earthquake.  Kavachi has emerged above the ocean surface to form an island on nine occasions, only to subside again due to erosion.

26 January 2011

A plea for more science coverage in local and community papers

Last week’s Isthmus (January 21, 2011) cover story, which ran under the provocative headline, “The Truth about Adult Stem Cells,” set my mind racing for the better part of an hour as I considered various arguments that swirl around the stem cell debate.  (For those that aren’t familiar with it, Isthmus is a weekly local paper in Madison, WI.)  I, like a lot of people it seems, have an opinion, albeit a murky one, on the subject. Although I have no intention of sharing it here.  I know better than to wade too quickly into a sure quagmire.  Plus, that’s not what this post is about.

After that initial hour or so the other day, my mind settled back down and I was able focus on other concerns.  But the article stuck with me.  I came back to it today, reread it, read the ensuing online commentary, and began the debate all over again in my head.

At some point, it dawned on me how effective the story had been—whether through solid writing, or because of the subject matter, or both—at holding my attention and causing me to weigh the issue.  It also got me thinking about how rare it is to find coverage of important scientific issues in local and community newspapers (i.e., circulation under about 50,000).

19 January 2011

Allow myself to introduce...myself

Hello dear reader,

Thank you for stopping by to check out my new blog, ‘+/- Science.’  It is intended as a general interest science writing blog, although the content will no doubt be colored by my own scientific interests—geoscience, chemistry, biochemistry and the like—and it may occasionally include posts that do not have an obvious connection to science.  (Although, in my opinion, connections to science, or at least the scientific method, can be found almost everywhere.)

A brief introduction…

My name is Tim Oleson.  Nice to meet you. [imaginary handshakes]

After spending a decade or so in science as a student and researcher, I’m transitioning to science writing.  Currently pursuing a Master’s degree in journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (Go Bucky!), I was formerly a grad student in the Department of Geoscience, also at UW, where I completed an MS in 2005 and a PhD in 2009 while conducting research in the field of biogeochemistry (yes, that’s an actual field).  I never imagined myself as a career student, but that’s clearly how it turned out.  Please check out the About the Author page, if you’re interested in learning a little bit more about me.

Purpose of the blog…

I recently overheard an undergraduate say, while speaking to a classmate, that he tries to avoid real science as much as possible.  The two were discussing classes they had taken, or had considered taking, to fulfill university science requirements as painlessly as possible.