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.