Archive for April, 2009

Cure For Honey Bee Colony Collapse?

Saturday, April 25th, 2009

For the first time, scientists have isolated the parasite Nosema ceranae (Microsporidia) from professional apiaries suffering from honey bee colony depopulation syndrome. They then went on to treat the infection with complete success.

In a study published in the new journal from the Society for Applied Microbiology: Environmental Microbiology Reports, scientists from Spain analysed two apiaries and found evidence of honey bee colony depopulation syndrome (also known as colony collapse disorder in the USA). They found no evidence of any other cause of the disease (such as the Varroa destructor, IAPV or pesticides), other than infection with Nosema ceranae. The researchers then treated the infected surviving under-populated colonies with the antibiotic drug, flumagillin and demonstrated complete recovery of all infected colonies.


– Research Thanks to Bruce S.

Freeman Dyson and Global Climate Change

Tuesday, April 21st, 2009

Two good friends of mine have both referred me recently to articles by Freeman Dyson.   One pointed me at an article in the NY Times and the other sent me to an article  in  John Brockman’s site, The Edge.

Both of my friends have some reservations about global climate change and they’ve directed me to these articles, I think, because Freeman Dyson is also skeptical of climate change and he’s an extremely smart and well respected scientist.  So, I read these two articles carefully.freeman-dyson1

Freeman Dyson hasn’t converted me.   Sorry.    That he is world-class brilliant is obvious.   But I haven’t been convinced that he’s so brilliant that he’s been able to see the correct answers and that the majority of the world’s scientists have been, strangely, missing them.

In the Edge article, he trashes the use of climate models saying the following:

I have studied the climate models and I know what they can do. The models solve the equations of fluid dynamics, and they do a very good job of describing the fluid motions of the atmosphere and the oceans. They do a very poor job of describing the clouds, the dust, the chemistry and the biology of fields and farms and forests. They do not begin to describe the real world that we live in. The real world is muddy and messy and full of things that we do not yet understand.

For someone wanting to believe that the climate scientists are just making it all up, it would be easy to gather this sort of thing to yourself and snuggle in it.

But, flash as it sounds, it’s not right.

First, climate modelers don’t just develop a model and then start it from today and run it forward.   They develop it and then prime it with data from the past and then run it forward to the present and then see how it did predicting the weather in a period where we know what the correct outcome was.   And then they iteratively tweak and adjust the model and run it again and again until it does a decent job before they turn it lose predicting future events.

Second, we’re not talking about one model here.   We’re talking about many models – all independently developed and all manifesting a good deal of agreement with each other in their predictions.

And, third, and most telling, is that Dyson’s implication that these models are exaggerating the danger is badly off.    In fact, in nearly all cases, the climatic changes predicted by the models over the last decade have been consistent in under estimating the amounts and rates of change.   If anything, these models have been conservative in their predictions compared to what’s actually come to pass.

That’s not exactly a reason to decide that Global Climate Change is being exaggerated.

Concerning the scientists who develop the models, he says:

It is much easier for a scientist to sit in an air-conditioned building and run computer models, than to put on winter clothes and measure what is really happening outside in the swamps and the clouds. That is why the climate model experts end up believing their own models.

I’m sorry, but that isn’t scientific discussion – it’s simply a personal attack.   And, yes, some folks do work in buildings and do theory while others go out and get their hands dirty.   But these both, theoretical and practical, are vital and real parts of science.    Dyson himself, for example, has spent the last 50+ years at at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ.   And that’s a pretty theoretical place, if there ever was one.

There are arguably more scientists out in the field today, getting their hands dirty studying the climate than there has ever been before.   But, if you uncritically accept Dyson’s attack, you’d assume that most climate scientists just sitting in their air-conditioned offices playing with computers and adjusting their climate models and ignoring the messy real world.

How can anyone imagine that such attacks improve the scientific discussion climate?

Dyson is brilliant – no doubt.   But, he’s also widely acknowledged to like being the heretic.   If everyone goes left, he’s the one who will often go right.   And there’s a place for that in the world of science to keep everyone from getting complacent.   But when people know that this has been his habitual response across an entire career, one wonders whether his current contrarianism is based on convictions or if he’s just acting out his signature response?

If you think I’m exaggerating a bit, read the two articles and see how many times he’s played the  contrarian in his career.

The Nobel physics laureate Steven Weinberg admires Dyson’s physics — he says he thinks the Nobel committee fleeced him by not awarding his work on quantum electrodynamics with the prize — but Weinberg parts ways with his sensibility:

“I have the sense that when consensus is forming like ice hardening on a lake, Dyson will do his best to chip at the ice.”

Oliver Sacks, a good friend of Dyson, said this about Dyson:

“a favorite word of Freeman’s about doing science and being creative is the word ‘subversive.’ He feels it’s rather important not only to be not orthodox, but to be subversive, and he’s done that all his life.”

Of himself, Dyson says this about how he reacted in college when he found his muse when reading J. B. S. Haldane’s work:

Haldane was even more of a heretic than I am,” he says. “He really loved to make people angry.”

And has Dyson always been right?   It would certainly be a lot more telling if he had been.

orion_blastoff2But no, he’s gone off the rails once or twice.    For example, he opposed the Space Station and the Hubble Telescope.  And he was fully on-board with the Air Force’s Orion Project -  a project to develop spacecraft that flew by exploding atomic bombs behind themselves to get a ‘push’.

The Edge article is in Dyson’s own words and is excerpted from his latest book, Many Colored Glass: Reflections on the Place of Life in the Universe.

The NY Times article, on the other hand, was written by Nicholas Dawidoff.   Nicholas’ previous writing seems to have largely involved baseball. He’s not suited to the material and his story rambles a bit as in the following excerpt:

These days, most of what consumes Dyson is his writing. In a recent article, he addressed the issue of reductionist thinking obliquely, as a question of perspective. Birds, he wrote, “fly high in the air and survey broad vistas.” Frogs like him “live in the mud below and see only the flowers that grow nearby.” Whether the topic is government work, string theory or climate change, Dyson seems opposed to science making enormous gestures.

Jeez, I think I know what reductionist thinking refers to but, after reading this, I seriously doubt that Dawidoff does.

This, of course, shouldn’t be a reflection on Dyson’s qualifications but it is a reflection of how lightly all of this is taken by an organization no less weighty that the NY Times.

Dyson’s admirers tout him as first-class systems thinker – a big picture man.   But, frankly, I have my doubts when he says things like the following:

“the move of the populations of China and India from poverty to middle-class prosperity should be the great historic achievement of the century. Without coal it cannot happen.”

India and China’s rush to try to live like we Americans live is unsupportable.  The planet simply doesn’t have sufficient resources.   Signs of the strain are appearing everywhere around us – but he thinks it is all the best thing since sliced bread.

Freeman Dyson is brilliant, as I’ve said before, and he’s got a lot of credibility based on  his earlier career work (atomic bomb spaceships aside).  But, he’s also known as a habitual maverick and he’s got some seriously loose cannon ideas about climate science.   I personally think he’s irresponsible to wade into such a critical subject area armed with no more of a purpose for being there than, as he says himself:

…I am not speaking as a scientist. I am speaking as a story-teller, and my predictions are science-fiction rather than science. The predictions of science-fiction writers are notoriously inaccurate. Their purpose is to imagine what might happen rather than to describe what will happen. I will be telling stories that challenge the prevailing dogmas of today. The prevailing dogmas may be right, but they still need to be challenged. I am proud to be a heretic. The world always needs heretics to challenge the prevailing orthodoxies. Since I am heretic, I am accustomed to being in the minority. If I could persuade everyone to agree with me, I would not be a heretic.

His credibility as a world-class scientist means that his ideas are taken as valid criticisms of the science of Global Climate Change and that’s just not helpful now.   Yes, we will always need the contrarian viewpoint to keep us honest.  But Dyson, with his credibility, should spend it a little more responsibly and not use it to sow confusion in a world that badly needs to come to consensus on its climate problems soon.

Dyson says the following of James Hanson:

“It’s always possible Hansen could turn out to be right,” he says of the climate scientist. “If what he says were obviously wrong, he wouldn’t have achieved what he has. But Hansen has turned his science into ideology. He’s a very persuasive fellow and has the air of knowing everything. He has all the credentials. I have none. I don’t have a Ph.D. He’s published hundreds of papers on climate. I haven’t. By the public standard he’s qualified to talk and I’m not. But I do because I think I’m right. I think I have a broad view of the subject, which Hansen does not. I think it’s true my career doesn’t depend on it, whereas his does. I never claim to be an expert on climate. I think it’s more a matter of judgment than knowledge.”

And James Hanson says this of Freeman Dyson:

“…if he is going to wander into something with major consequences for humanity and other life on the planet, then he should first do his homework — which he obviously has not done on global warming.”

I know where my money is at.  And I think you’d have to be a contrairan to get this one wrong.


An introduction to global warming impacts: Hell and High Water

Tuesday, April 21st, 2009

– This is a great place to start if you want to get the big overview of Global Climate Change and its consequences.   And recall that this, as big as it is, is only a part of the bigger picture that I’ve been calling The Perfect Storm.

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In this post, I will examine the key impacts we face by 2100 if we stay anywhere near our current emissions path. I will focus primarily on:

  • Staggeringly high temperature rise, especially over land — some 15°F over much of the United States
  • Sea level rise of 5 feet, rising some 6 to 12 inches (or more) each decade thereafter
  • Dust Bowls over the U.S. SW and many other heavily populated regions around the globe
  • Massive species loss on land and sea — 50% or more of all life
  • Unexpected impacts — the fearsome “unknown unknowns”
  • More severe hurricanes — especially in the Gulf

Equally tragic, as a 2009 NOAA-led study found, these impacts be “largely irreversible for 1000 years.”

More… <== Please continue, this is well worth a good read!

Ocean Dead Zones Likely To Expand: Increasing Carbon Dioxide And Decreasing Oxygen Make It Harder For Deep-sea Animals To Breath

Tuesday, April 21st, 2009

New calculations made by marine chemists from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) suggest that low-oxygen “dead zones” in the ocean could expand significantly over the next century. These predictions are based on the fact that, as more and more carbon dioxide dissolves from the atmosphere into the ocean, marine animals will need more oxygen to survive.

Concentrations of carbon dioxide are increasing rapidly in the Earth’s atmosphere, primarily because of human activities. About one third of the carbon dioxide that humans produce by burning fossil fuels is being absorbed by the world’s oceans, gradually causing seawater to become more acidic.

However, such “ocean acidification” is not the only way that carbon dioxide can harm marine animals. In a “Perspective” published in the journal Science, Peter Brewer and Edward Peltzer combine published data on rising levels of carbon dioxide and declining levels of oxygen in the ocean in a set of new and thermodynamically rigorous calculations. They show that increases in carbon dioxide can make marine animals more susceptible to low concentrations of oxygen, and thus exacerbate the effects of low-oxygen “dead zones” in the ocean.

Brewer and Peltzer’s calculations also show that the partial pressure of dissolved carbon dioxide gas (pCO2) in low-oxygen zones will rise much higher than previously thought. This could have significant consequences for marine life in these zones.


Bioethanol’s Impact On Water Supply Three Times Higher Than Once Thought

Tuesday, April 21st, 2009

At a time when water supplies are scarce in many areas of the United States, scientists in Minnesota are reporting that production of bioethanol — often regarded as the clean-burning energy source of the future — may consume up to three times more water than previously thought.

Sangwon Suh and colleagues point out in the new study that annual bioethanol production in the U.S. is currently about 9 billion gallons and note that experts expect it to increase in the near future. The growing demand for bioethanol, particularly corn-based ethanol, has sparked significant concerns among researchers about its impact on water availability. Previous studies estimated that a gallon of corn-based bioethanol requires the use of 263 to 784 gallons of water from the farm to the fuel pump. But these estimates failed to account for widely varied regional irrigation practices, the scientists say.


Biofuels Could Hasten Climate Change

Tuesday, April 21st, 2009

A new study finds that it will take more than 75 years for the carbon emissions saved through the use of biofuels to compensate for the carbon lost when biofuel plantations are established on forestlands. If the original habitat was peatland, carbon balance would take more than 600 years.

The oil palm, increasingly used as a source for biofuel, has replaced soybean as the world’s most traded oilseed crop. Global production of palm oil has increased exponentially over the past 40 years. In 2006, 85 percent of the global palm-oil crop was produced in Indonesia and Malaysia, countries whose combined annual tropical forest loss is around 20,000 square kilometers.

Conversion of forest to oil palm also results in significant impoverishment of both plant and animal communities. Other tropical crops suitable for biofuel use, like soybean, sugar cane and jatropha, are all likely to have similar impacts on climate and biodiversity.

“Biofuels are a bad deal for forests, wildlife and the climate if they replace tropical rain forests,” says research scientist Finn Danielsen, lead author of the study. “In fact, they hasten climate change by removing one of the world’s most efficient carbon storage tools, intact tropical rain forests.”

As countries strive to meet obligations to reduce carbon emissions under one international agreement (Kyoto Protocol), they may not only fail to meet their obligations under another (Convention on Biological Diversity) but may actually hasten global climate change.

According to the study, reducing deforestation is likely to represent a more effective climate-change mitigation strategy than converting forest for biofuel production, and it may help nations meet their international commitments to reduce biodiversity loss.


US urges food output boost to avert unrest

Tuesday, April 21st, 2009

The US agriculture secretary has warned that unless countries take immediate steps to sharply boost agricultural productivity and food output and reduce hunger, the world risks fresh social instability.

In an interview with the Financial Times, Tom Vilsack indicated that food security and global stability were tied, in a sign that Washington’s worries about the global food crisis go well beyond its humanitarian implications.

“This is not just about food security, this is about national security, it is about environmental security,” he said on the sidelines of the first meeting of the Group of Eight ministers of agriculture. Although the US has in the past talked about the links, Barack Obama, US president, and his team have made it a priority, officials said.

Last year’s spike in food prices caused riots in about 30 countries, from Haiti to Bangladesh. Leading agricultural commodity exporters, including India and Argentina, imposed bans on overseas sales of food products. “I can figure out there are only three things that could happen if people do not have food: people could riot, that they have done; people migrate to places where there is food, which creates additional challenges; or people die,” said Mr Vilsack.

– color emphasis is mine.


Ten principles for a Black Swan-proof world

Tuesday, April 21st, 2009

– “The Black Swan theory (in Nassim Nicholas Taleb‘s version) refers to a large-impact, hard-to-predict, and rare event beyond the realm of normal expectations.”  -taken from a WikiPedia article here.

– Taleb has now come up with a list of ten things we (all of us) should do to prevent Black Swan surprises.

– Like a lot of very logical things which we (humanity) should do in our own best interests, this sounds good.   But, given human nature, what are the real chances that we’ll actually do these things?

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By Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Published: April 7 2009 20:02

1. What is fragile should break early while it is still small. Nothing should ever become too big to fail. Evolution in economic life helps those with the maximum amount of hidden risks – and hence the most fragile – become the biggest.

2. No socialisation of losses and privatisation of gains. Whatever may need to be bailed out should be nationalised; whatever does not need a bail-out should be free, small and risk-bearing. We have managed to combine the worst of capitalism and socialism. In France in the 1980s, the socialists took over the banks. In the US in the 2000s, the banks took over the government. This is surreal.

3. People who were driving a school bus blindfolded (and crashed it) should never be given a new bus. The economics establishment (universities, regulators, central bankers, government officials, various organisations staffed with economists) lost its legitimacy with the failure of the system. It is irresponsible and foolish to put our trust in the ability of such experts to get us out of this mess. Instead, find the smart people whose hands are clean.

4. Do not let someone making an “incentive” bonus manage a nuclear plant – or your financial risks. Odds are he would cut every corner on safety to show “profits” while claiming to be “conservative”. Bonuses do not accommodate the hidden risks of blow-ups. It is the asymmetry of the bonus system that got us here. No incentives without disincentives: capitalism is about rewards and punishments, not just rewards.

5. Counter-balance complexity with simplicity. Complexity from globalisation and highly networked economic life needs to be countered by simplicity in financial products. The complex economy is already a form of leverage: the leverage of efficiency. Such systems survive thanks to slack and redundancy; adding debt produces wild and dangerous gyrations and leaves no room for error. Capitalism cannot avoid fads and bubbles: equity bubbles (as in 2000) have proved to be mild; debt bubbles are vicious.

6. Do not give children sticks of dynamite, even if they come with a warning. Complex derivatives need to be banned because nobody understands them and few are rational enough to know it. Citizens must be protected from themselves, from bankers selling them “hedging” products, and from gullible regulators who listen to economic theorists.

7. Only Ponzi schemes should depend on confidence. Governments should never need to “restore confidence”. Cascading rumours are a product of complex systems. Governments cannot stop the rumours. Simply, we need to be in a position to shrug off rumours, be robust in the face of them.

8. Do not give an addict more drugs if he has withdrawal pains. Using leverage to cure the problems of too much leverage is not homeopathy, it is denial. The debt crisis is not a temporary problem, it is a structural one. We need rehab.

9. Citizens should not depend on financial assets or fallible “expert” advice for their retirement. Economic life should be definancialised. We should learn not to use markets as storehouses of value: they do not harbour the certainties that normal citizens require. Citizens should experience anxiety about their own businesses (which they control), not their investments (which they do not control).

10. Make an omelette with the broken eggs. Finally, this crisis cannot be fixed with makeshift repairs, no more than a boat with a rotten hull can be fixed with ad-hoc patches. We need to rebuild the hull with new (stronger) materials; we will have to remake the system before it does so itself. Let us move voluntarily into Capitalism 2.0 by helping what needs to be broken break on its own, converting debt into equity, marginalising the economics and business school establishments, shutting down the “Nobel” in economics, banning leveraged buyouts, putting bankers where they belong, clawing back the bonuses of those who got us here, and teaching people to navigate a world with fewer certainties.

Then we will see an economic life closer to our biological environment: smaller companies, richer ecology, no leverage. A world in which entrepreneurs, not bankers, take the risks and companies are born and die every day without making the news.

In other words, a place more resistant to black swans.

To the original article…

Tiny Tech Can Leave a Big Mess

Sunday, April 19th, 2009

nanotechnology– I’ve been concerned about nanotechnology for sometime ( , , and ).   It’s not that I don’t like the idea and don’t think it has a lot of future.  I read The Engines of Creation way back in 1988 and was deeply impressed by the promise of it all.

– My concerns are, rather, the way we’re going about it.   As always, humanity, in its impatience for maximum profit in the minimum time, is developing and dispersing these agents into our environment with no real idea of the possible consequences.   Just like all the industrial chemicals we’ve developed and employed in the past, we’re assuming these materials will not cause any problems – a least until we find out otherwise.

– I also read Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle many years ago and if you haven’t heard the story of ICE-9, you should.

* – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – *

Scientists try to clean up nanotechnology before it becomes a big business–and a big problem

Nanotechnology‘s image is sleek, modern and clean. But that’s not its reality.

Turns out that designing and manufacturing materials so small that 100,000 of them can fit comfortably on the width of a hair strand absorbs tremendous amounts of energy and is anything but neat.

“You can make a very green product with a very messy process,” said Mark Greenwood, a Washington lawyer and former director of U.S. EPA’s Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics.

That “very messy process” is a problem for nanotech researchers trying, among other things, to design more efficient batteries, higher-performing solar cells, more effective water purifiers and more sensitive pollution detectors.

Consider what it takes to purify a nanomaterial of unwanted chemicals. Traditionally, that has required the repeated use of solvents – a lot of them, said James Hutchison, a professor at the University of Oregon.

“If you’re washing with a solvent, you’re wasting a lot of solvent,” Hutchison said. “This is the biggest contribution to waste we’ve been able to see. If you think about a lifecycle analysis on this, you see what’s the hot spot, and think about other ways to purify that don’t require solvent.”

Hutchison and others are trying to come at the nanotech problem with “green chemistry” techniques that emphasize materials, products and processes that reduce or eliminate hazardous substances and conserve energy and resources. His solution for the solvent waste: a nanofiltration membrane that separates nanomaterials from the rest.

Hutchison’s work is part of a larger University of Oregon effort that researchers call green nanoscience. In 2005, Hutchison launched the Safer Nanomaterials and Nanomanufacturing Initiative, which is funded by the Air Force and aims to develop nanotechnology to ensure high performance without threatening human health or the environment.

Because nanotechnology is still an emerging field, scientists believe there are opportunities to make it environmentally safe. “Now’s the time to think about how to make this stuff clean and green,” said David Rejeski, director of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies.

But the technology is steaming ahead, and the opportunity is unlikely to last long.


Valley fever blowin’ on a hotter wind

Sunday, April 19th, 2009

– I pity the American Southwest where I grew up and where my older son and his family still remain.   It is squarely in the cross hairs of Global Climate Change and one only has to look at Australia to see what the future holds.   10+ million people living in the L.A. basin on what is, at bottom, simply coastal scrub desert that would barely be able to support a few tens of thousands without the massive influx of food and water delivered there daily from elsewhere.  This story about Valley Fever, is just one of many gathering force now for the Southwest.   Can you say, “Water”?

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PHOENIX – It’s high noon, and the 112-degree summer heat – up from a decade ago – stalks Arizona’s Sonoran Desert. By late afternoon, dark clouds threaten, and monsoon winds beat the earth into a mass of swirling sand. Thick walls of surface soil blind drivers on the Interstate.

Some health experts believe new weather conditions – hotter temperatures and more intense dust storms fueled by global warming – are creating a perfect storm for the transmission of coccidioidomycosis, also known as valley fever, a fungal disease endemic to the southwestern United States.

How do cocci spores infect the body? Propelled by winds, thousands of soil particles and cocci spherules are inhaled. People – particularly those older or immune-compromised – may experience flu-like symptoms that can turn into pneumonia. If the infection disseminates, the pathogens can target any organ – mostly the nervous system, skin, bones and joints – and become life threatening.

Each year, according to the American Academy of Microbiology, about 200,000 Americans contract valley fever, and 200 of them die. But some experts believe the disease is vastly underreported. Between 1991 and 1993, healthcare costs for valley fever exceeded $66 million, according to the Pan American Center for Human Ecology and Health.

The group Physicians for Social Responsibility says global warming will multiply the incidence due to increased airborne dust and sandstorms. Higher wind speeds and drought upped Arizona’s yearly count from 33 cases of valley fever per 100,000 in 1998 to 43 per 100,000 in 2001, said Dale Griffin of the U.S. Geological Survey in St. Petersburg, Fla.

The number of cases in Arizona more than quadrupled from 1997 to 2006, according to a Mayo Clinic study. During that same period, incidence rates in California jumped from 2.5 to 8.4 cases per 100,000 people.