Friday, June 29, 2007

Canada Leading Internet User

As promised, and in anticipation of Canada Day (July 1), today's Friday Feature is: "Read/Write Web". No, it isn't a Canadian site nor does it contain strictly Canadian content or viewpoint..."Why, then? What's the connection," you ask. "Ah, well, that will become apparent as you read on," the alien responds with a vague knowing smile. For now though, let's get on with why this site merits a Friday Feature mention: first it is an erudite and succinct collection of great tips on web writing, presentation and navigation. Like Ilker's Thinking Blogger site, Read/WriteWeb provides a well written and well researched location on a variety of topics related to the web and, because it receives a lot of traffic (also like Ilker's site), its comment page is often more illuminating than the original post.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Are You a Scientist?

While I was having coffee with a scientific colleague of mine, Ian Parnell, the originator of the excellent blog, "What's your Ecotype?" we shared an interesting conversation about "science" and both came to the conclusion that science is a much misunderstood, often maligned, field of inquiry (see what a good Starbucks coffee will do to you? Mine was a latte, actually...but I digress...) To my pronouncement that I am not a scientific "modeller" Ian suggested that in a broad sense everyone is a modeller and a scientist; humans are naturally inquisitive, seeking to make sense of a world often frought with seemingly random patterns and events. Our brains, specifically the hypothalamus via REM sleep, processes our experiences and memories of the previous day into learning. Learning is really modelling: figuring out paradigms, patterns, mosaics that work; consequences of actions. The stuff of common sense. Okay, Ian didn't say all this (it was my wonderful latte that made me think about it while we were talking). The whole discussion brought to light how symantics and language can play a vital role in how we see ourselves and our actions. Are you a scientist?

Here are some definitions that were forwarded in the past:

"Science is classifiction"--Aristotle (~340 BC)

"Science is common sense classified"--Herbert Spencer

"Science eliminates the worthless and the useless and then makes use of it in something else"--Thomas Edison

The word science came from a Latin word scientia that means knowledge and comes from scio--I know. The Indo-European root means to discern or separate (Sanskrit chyati; Greek schisein). Karl Popper (The Logic of Scientific Discovery, 1959) describes science as "a system of acquiring knowledge based on the scientific method, as well as the organized body of knowledge gained through such research." This kind of science is often called "pure science" to differentiate it from the application of scientific research to specific human needs.

It would seem that the "scientific method" separates science from other methods of inquiry. As for the scientific method, it is simply a way to explain the complexities of nature and the universe in a replicable way and to use these explanations to make useful predictions. It does this by providing an objective process to find solutions or make conclusions. All this means is that you would gather and/or use reliable (source-checked) data, cross-checked to make your conclusions. So, deciding that Vinny Garbanzo is the man to elect based on his dimpled smile isn't science. But checking all possible non-biased sources for information on Garbanzo's platform, history, etc. is.

So, are you a scientist?

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

My New Car?

Here's the car my husband wants me to get--when I sell millions of copies of my upcoming book and can afford it, that is...

General Motors has a new concept car, called the "Volt" which is an electric car roughly the same size as the Chevrolet Cobalt, but can run entirely on electricity! "The car plugs into any 3-pronged wall socket and fully charges in about 6 hours", says CanWest News Service. "It runs on high-tech lithium ion batteries, the same technology used in digital cameras." On one 6-hour charge my car and I can travel more than 60 km. That's an electricity rate of 10 cents per kilowatt hour. The Volt also houses a one-litre 3-cylinder turbo gasoline engine that acts like a generator burning fuel to power the car's battery. In "alternative run mode" one 45-litre tank of fuel can take me more than 1,000 km--enough to go to Calgary and back! The car accelerates like a Cobalt, says CanWest News, though that doesn't help me (because I don't know what a Cobalt can do). Plus the Volt can go to up to 160 km/hr. Which doesn't phase current car, Norman, can't go faster than 50 km/hr, or he has a case of the palsies. Time for a new car...only hitch is the Volt is still on "promise" mode. Besides, it is a Chevrolet. And look at it...It doesn't have a "face".

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Biomimicry: Nature's Alternative to Genetically Engineered Foods

While developers of genetically engineered foods (GEF) strive to produce hardier and higher-yielding plants, ecologists throughout the world eye transgenics skeptically. They fear that these genetically altered plants, may escape into the wild and displace native plants with unforeseen and potentially devastating results. Dr. Wes Jackson, director of the Land Institute in Kansas, a non-profit research facility devoted to alternative agricultural practices, warns that, if misused, biotechnology may lead to the human-induced degradation of the genomes of plant species. “What is being more or less ignored” in the rush to biotechnology, he said in an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education, “is that some of the same principles and processes that govern an ecosystem, like a forest or a prairie, also operate with genomes. The genome is a miniature ecosystem.”1 Thinking along the same lines, Jane Rissler of the Union of Concerned Scientists of America suggested that transgenic science practices may release a seemingly harmless gene into our food supply with life-threatening consequences.

Growing knowledge of potential risks to ecosystem and human health is prompting many to insist that GEFs be identified and segregated so that consumers can make a choice for or against them. Which brings us to the obvious question: what alternative to the use of GEFs will we find to feed our ever-growing populations? Rissler advocates an alternative vision for agriculture, one based on nature’s own balance, which she calls “sustainable agriculture” or biomimicry.

Janine Benyus, nature writer and champion of nature-inspired innovation, defines the quest of biomimicry as “the conscious emulation of life’s genius. Innovation inspired by nature.”2 In her revolutionary book of the same name, Benyus describes how maverick scientists at the Land Institute are remaking agriculture using self-sufficient crops able to “live amiably with their fieldmates, stay in sync with their surroundings, build soil beneath them and handle pests with aplomb.”3 Using nature as a standard, rather than something to be subdued or ignored, the Land Institute is developing self-fertilizing and pest-resistant farms modeled on natural ecosystems. Their heuristic research represents an ecology-based approach to food production which contrasts with the organism-based approach of GEFs. According to Jackson, biomimicry provides a healthy alternative to the promotion of genetically altered plants more resistant to pesticides, because biomimicry bypasses the use of chemicals altogether.

According to the Institute, “ecosystems self-regulate, accumulate ‘ecological capital’ and are largely resilient to most perturbations.” According to Jackson, many problems faced by the agriculture industry today stem from replacing natural systems with totally alien systems, and from waging war on rather than allying ourselves with natural processes. He suggests that this has resulted in a steady loss of ecological capital (the erosion and salting of soils, the steady domesticating and weakening of our crops).

The mission of the Land Institute is to “honor natural ecosystems and mimic them.” The Land Institute argues that “the tendency of all natural ecosystems is to increase their ecological wealth. For instance, all prairie, left alone, recycles materials, sponsors its own fertility, runs on contemporary sunlight, and increases biodiversity. Agricultural systems tend otherwise. They erode and degrade ecological capital as they provide for human needs.”4

The premise behind “natural systems agriculture” is a “polyculture of herbaceous perennials, which would run on sunlight, preserve soil, maintain biological diversity, yield adequately, and not rely on harmful synthetic chemicals for fertility or pest management.”5 Polycultures of perennial indigenous plants would incorporate the dynamic properties of natural succession.

Working with four species (Illinois bundleflower, a legume; mammoth wild rye, a cool-season grass; eastern gammagrass, a warm-season grass related to corn; and Maximilian sunflower) the Land Institute’s research and development in biomimicry is finding answers to four basic agronomic questions:

Question 1: Can a perennial grain yield as well as an annual grain? Annuals are traditionally used for their high productive capacity and edible yield. Perennials contain extensive root systems which more readily soak up and contain rainwater. Self-fertilizing and self-weeding, perennials are generally more hardy than the annuals typically grown in monoculture in traditional agricultural practices today. But can perennials produce as much seed as an annual crop? The Land Institute is showing yields for perennial grasses that range from 1,500 kg/ha to 2000 kg/ha (Illinois bundleflower) in an area where benchmark yield for Kansas winter wheat is 1960 kg/ha. Each of the four groups looked at have palatable qualities. Gamagrass, for instance, contains a high-protein, large seed (27% to 30% protein and 7% fat), with baking properties similar to those of cornmeal. Hawkins, Lovins and Lovins in their book, Natural Capitalism, claim that a “replacement of annual grains with perennial cereals that do not require annual tilling and replanting could eliminate up to half the soil erosion in the United States, saving nearly $20 billion worth of U.S. soil and $9 billion worth of fuel for farm equipment every year.”6

Question 2: Can a perennial polyculture overyield? Successful use of polycultures (instead of monocultures, traditionally used to provide high yields and uniform maturation time), avoids the “all or nothing” effect of crops of one variety and one stage at the mercy of the vicissitudes of nature in the form of droughts, floods, pests, hail and eroding soils. Polycultures, by virtue of their diversity and multiple stages in succession, are far more hardy against pests and able to withstand what nature deals out. And, perhaps, of far more import, polycultures alone are ecologically sustainable. But can polyculture yields stay even with or actually overyield those of monocultures? Overyielding is common in traditional polyculture systems of Latin America, Africa, and Asia. “Our biological research has shown the feasibility of a mixed perennial grain agriculture,” says Jackson. Experiments performed by the Land Institute support the persistence of overyielding in polycultures because of the synergistic and communal opportunities afforded by mixed crops, rather than the competition of monocultures.

Question 3: Can a perennial polyculture sponsor its own nitrogen fertility? The Land Institute and other researchers throughout North America provide indirect evidence of the benefit that a leguminous grain provides to companion species. In experiments with a leguminous grain (Illinois bundleflower), they showed that the legume compensated for low soil nitrogen without lowering its growth or seed yield. Within 3 to 5 years after establishment, these crops increased soil nitrate over plots containing only grasses.

Question 4: Can perennial polycultures defend themselves against insects, pests and weeds? Because most agricultural weeds are adapted to disturbed habitats, and can often outcompete the non-native crops for soil water and nutrients, they become a chronic problem where soils are repeatedly tilled. The Land Institute and other researchers have found that perennial grain polycultures compete well against weeds because of their permanent canopy, deep and extensive root systems and vigorous regrowth in the spring. Intercropping of polycultures combines the weed-suppressing effects of different crops, by intercepting more light, water, and nutrients over monocultures, thus eliminating the need for herbicide application. Hawkin, Lovins and Lovins describe how Japanese farmers can efficiently hand-sow and harvest their polycultures, “because an elegantly conceived sequence of plantings provides the weed control, composting, and other services automatically”.7

When it comes to pests, the effects of perennial polyculture are not so clear. Although researchers have demonstrated that some polycultures are less susceptible to pests in what is known as “associational resistance”, they also found that, once established in a perennial system, pests suffer less soil disturbance and tend to prolong.

In the final analysis, Jackson submitted that, “We don’t need one more breakthrough in agriculture. We need to stare hard at (our) fields . . . then reach into the vast literature in evolutionary biology and ecology to learn the rules and laws at work on the land before we got here, and out of this knowledge, put together a new synthesis, a truly new paradigm for agriculture.”


1 Malcolm G. Scully, The Chronicle of Higher Eduction, February 18, 2000, Salina, Kansas.
2,3 Janine Benyus, Biomimicry, Quill William Morrow, New York, 1997, 308pg.
4, 5 The Land Institute Web Site:
6, 7 Paul Hawkin, Amory Lovins and L. Hunter Lovins, Natural Capitalism, Little, Brown and Company, Boston, 1999, 396pg.
Photos by Nina Munteanu, except the last two; sources: 1, 2

Monday, June 25, 2007

How to Design a Lunar Exploration Station Without a PhD

Speaking of interviews (in my last post), here's one I did a while ago with two young students with great promise for our space program (this interview first appeared in Beyond Centauri):

You don’t need to be an adult to assemble and run a lunar exploration station (LES) says Michael Arbeider, age 12. All you need is lots of imagination, a loyal and capable imaginary crew and good tools like a helpful teacher and Google, of course.

When I discovered that Michael Arbeider and his school buddy, Steve Da Costa, designed a Lunar Exploration Station, I interviewed them and here’s what they had to say:

NM: So, what prompted you boys to embark on this fascinating venture?

Both: Our teacher!

MA: Our Grade six teacher, Mrs. Cawker.

SDC: Yeah, she did it as part of the curriculum requirement on space and technology.

NM: So, tell me a little about this station. What were your criteria?

MA: Well, we had to come up with a design for the station and to run it for one month with a small team of specialists.

SDC: We had to draw up a team of ten specialists to pilot the spacecraft to the moon and run the lunar station. They had to run experiments and carry out the mission.

NM: Which was?

MA: To find fuel. And to figure out if it was efficient to run a full mining operation there.

NM: And did the criteria include limitations? Like space or time or money?

SDC: We had to transport everything the crew would need to live there for a month. We had to come up with what supplies and technology we would need to bring with us. It had to be existing technology that we already have and use in closed environments like spacecraft and submarines.

MA: We were given 15 squares to represent the cargo hold of our spaceship. The teacher gave us the values that things like people, air, water, technology, outdoor survival and moon transportation would take up and we had to decide how much of everything to take.

NM: How did you do your research for all this?

MA: We used Google mostly, because the internet has the most current information on available technologies. We also used Encarta.

NM: Tell me a little about your station. How will you get your food? Do you bring it all with you?

SDC: Only a week’s worth. The rest of the time we’ll get our food through the hydroponics greenhouse. It will be better than a regular greenhouse because it uses water, which is lighter and will be easier to transport. The water is also filled with nutrients, which will make the plants grow much faster. We’ll grow protein-rich soy bean, cabbage, lettuce, carrots, spinach, tomatoes and beans. The greenhouse is filled with super clean water and we’ll use it for our drinking water.

NM: How will you run your station? How will you generate power?

MA: We’ll use solar panels, which will work well on the moon because there’s no atmosphere or clouds to block out the sun’s rays. Our panels will be positioned in a broad area to catch more of the sun’s rays as it rises and sets on the moon. Our panels have special light sensors on them so they’ll activate only when the sun reaches them. The electical battery attaches to the solar panels to store power to provide a constant source of electricity even when the panels are in the dark.

SDC: We’ll also use hydrogen power cells.

NM: As in hydrogen fuel cells?

SDC: Eh, yeah. For power and to create super clean water for drinking. The hydrogen cells work like a battery. They do this by merging hydrogen and oxygen in a container with a conductor in the center. When hydrogen and oxygen merge, they create a small electric charge that can be collected by the conductor and sent to our battery. The benefit to hydrogen power is that it merges the hydrogen and oxygen separated from our dirty water by algae, to create water, so it’s two things in one: a water cleanser and a source of power for our station.

NM: So the algae split the water using sunlight?

SDC: Yeah. Hydrogen is then collected and transported as a compressed gas to the fuel cells. The hydrogen cells also provide us with the hydrogen for the explosives we need to do the mining.

MA: The station will use two kinds of power, hydraulic and electrical. The hydraulic power rams operate mechanical things like doors and hatches and the electrical power will handle all the other stuff like the lights, heat, air purification and the rover.

NM: What about the air? How will you get it and how will you keep it usable?

MA: We’ll bring the air with us. It’s part of our original payload, like the hydroponic unit and the technology. The air will be cleaned through a filter that removes the dirt particles and carbon dioxide. Our air cleaner does this by retrieving the dirty air from our station sent in through vents and air ducts. When the air passes through the filter, it gets cleaned and sent back into our station so it can be used again. Our air cleaner lets us use the same air over and over again. Just like spaceships that go to the moon do right now.

NM: What about your mission, to find fuel sources to mine and refine and research the feasibility of this venture?

MA: That’s a good question. You first, Steve.

SDC: No, you first. I insist.

NM: Well, what’s this “Labydo Do it Fast” I see marked on your schematic?

MA: It’s a rock/fuel research and excavation station. The Labydo has a fuel tester that figures out the kind and quality of the fossil fuel that we find, a rock research unit to see where we should plant the explosives and a pilot refinery to see if the rocks are refinable.

SDC: We’ll also use a rover to get to our excavation sites in the mining tunnels that we make. A battery operates the rover because gasoline won’t work in almost zero gravity. The rover, which weighs 465 pounds on Earth, would only weigh 72 lb on the moon.

MA: The miners will use space suits in the underground tunnels. They’ll be stored with the rover and airlocked. Besides air, the space suits will also provide heat and cooling in the fingertips.

NM: When you’re not working, how will you amuse yourselves?

MA: We’ll have work-out stations to stay in shape because of the low gravity. And see these? (He points to the schematic). They’re bean bag chairs: they serve two purposes, to sit on and in bean bag wars.

NM: Eh, sounds like fun. And therapeutic. What about your crew? Who will they be?

MA: Well, there’s Steve and I, of course. I’ll be captain of the craft, mission specialist and social coordinator. Steve, who’ll be second in command, will serve as chief mechanical and robotics engineer and games specialist.

NM: Ah, like bingo?…

Both: Huh?

SDC: And then there’s Marie Langlios, the botanist and doctor; Hank Simpson, the navigator and geologist; Kenney Cartmen, the explosive devices expert; Nefertiti Tut, the payload specialist, assistant miner and a fossil fuel refiner; Homer Hill, our electronic systems specialist; Andrea Griffin, our rover technologist; and Franko Antenelli, our communications specialist …

MA: Yeah, and don’t forget Jack Affro, the jack-of-all trades.

MN: As in your janitor and maybe the most important person on your mission?

Both: Gee, we never thought of that . . .

Which is why I’m doing the interviewing…
You can find the original url for the images at the following sources in order of image appearance: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

Sunday, June 24, 2007

My Interview with Biology in Science Fiction

Peggy Kolm features a wonderful interview with me here on her blog, "Biology in Science Fiction", a site that merits a visit (even if I wasn't on the feature post!). I've been interviewed a few times (here's one with Denise Fleischer at Gotta Write Network). Peggy asked insightful, intelligent and challenging questions that had me thinking (lucky I'm now a thinking blogger, having had that little thinking alien award bestowed upon me by Somerset Bob!). Peggy also devoted some quality time to researching my biography, my books and general items of relevance. And it showed; it made a difference in her questions.

This reminded me that it isn't a piece of cake to do a good interview. Having done a few in my day, here are a few things I would suggest to any prospective interviewers (things that Peggy got all right, by the way!). When you do an interview you should:

  • be genuinely interested in the person or their work (if you aren't, it'll show to both the interviewee and to the readership);

  • do the research;

  • find a general theme (usually something that sparked your wish to do the interview in the first place) and keep to it (at least loosely);

  • vary your questions from personal to academic/work-related (personal stuff always makes an interview more interesting to the readership, no matter what the topic is--the best non-fiction books always give some juicy tidbits about the people they're writing about);

  • do more research;

  • don't be afraid to ask challenging questions (this makes for a very interesting read and may even bring out something the readership never read before about this particular person--BONUS for you!);

  • be polite in the beginning and in the end (e.g., thank the interviewee).
There ya go...

Friday, June 22, 2007

Ilker, the Thinking Alien & Aurora Borealis

In keeping with my tradition of a Friday feature, I give you the thinking alien! No, not me (though I suppose I am a thinking alien...). The one that graces this page and whose image marks the 'Thinking Bloggers Award"; the same one which sagely oversees Ilker Yoldas's "The Thinking Blog".

The tag line reads: "The Thinking Blog, fuel by ikler yoldas". When I first stumbled across this site (without benefit of any search engine or link network, I might add), I was intrigued and compelled to read more. This blog is a cornucopia of succinct and well-written random thoughts: a stream of conscious expose of eclectic, varied well-thought out posts, succinctly and well-written and reflecting the edge of authority of a person devoted to sharing erudite facts and issues. Although, like a few other bloggers who have shared their thoughts with me, I'm not certain where Ilker's major themes lie (I don't think there is one--does there need to be one?), I admire her devotion to her blogging craft and her integrity (she always provides references and sources for material not of her own creation).

Ilker's posts are as varied as their titles are compelling, like these recent posts, ranging from personal issues to marketing:
  • support topless women

  • Blog Promotion

  • 5 addictive games

  • Intelligence can't be measured
Ylker is also an accomplished artist and, besides the wonderful thinking alien illustrated above, Ilker has painted landscapes and other portraits; you can see a gallery of her works here.
One post that struck me was on the Aurora Borealis by guest poster Jennifer Hitchcock and accompanied by incredible images collected by Ilker. I was particularly transported by the videos. You'll have to go check them out. This phenomenon is truly one of Nature's wonders.

What did it for me, though, was Ilker's thinking alien. The one perched on her blog, from whose brain emanates a fiery conflagration that flames her blog. I'd seen the thinking blogger award on someone else's site and thought it a marvelous idea. Of course, at its root the award is just a meme that serves as clever marketing (particularly given that the rules of award acceptance hinge on a link back to the originator of the meme, Ilker's thinking blog). But, I have no quarrels with that right--Ilker deserves recognition for not only the idea but for the attractive design of the widget.
Clever marketing aside, the idea of the thinking blogger award is a good one. The concept of striving to make things better (in this case by promoting thoughtfulness) is an elevated one. The more I blog-surf, the more I am convinced that the entire blogging community is a thinking community; that is why we blog. The majority of bloggers are thoughtful writers with something to share, whether personal feelings or information on the world. We are all writers and there lies the rub: because invariably we want to share that writing (I"m a professional writer; I should know). So, we walk the tightrope of promotion and content daily. Ilker has a great post on this too, incidentally (sorry, Ilker, I can't find it). In any case, I refer you to my previous posts, "The Faithful Blogger" and "Is Blogging Clogging the Internet" for more of my thoughts on this.
I like to quote my blogging friend, Joel of Fearless Dreams, who writes an incredibly insightful post on "thinking blogs" and "Why we need blogs that make us think and feel". Says Joel: "I enjoy blogs that help me think in new ways, even when they don't challenge me. But to me, the most interesting blogs are as much about emotional courage as they are about great thinking." Here's his complete post; very worthwhile to read!

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Monday, June 18, 2007

The Thinking Blogger Award!

Hey! I'm a Thinking Blogger! At least according to Bob Kingsley at Somerset Bob’s Place, who has kindly awarded me with the Thinking Blogger Award (created by Ilker Yoldas of The Thinking Blog).

Here's how it works:

1. if, and only if, you get tagged, write a post with links to 5 blogs that make you think;
2. link to this post, so that people can easily find the exact origin of the meme; and,
3. (optional) proudly display the "thinking Blogger Award" with a link to the post that you wrote(here is an alternative gold version if silver doesn’t fit your blog).

So, in turn, I present the award to these five thought-provoking blogs:
Modern Matriarch: whose essays challenge our current paradigms and way of thinking;

NOW by Camille Crawford: whose evokative imagery and poetic prose make my heart sing with thoughts;

Eye on DNA by Hsien Lei: whose scientific and social essays provoke my thoughts in all kinds of directions!

Tek Savvy by Zahid: whose well-researched site is far more than trivia. I can always find a neat fact, either in history, science, or technology that he illuminates.

Climate of our Future by Zephyr1: where I can always learn more about my environment and what I can do to make our world a better place

Congratulations! You have won a
Should you choose to participate (and why wouldn't you?), please make sure you pass this list of rules to the blogs you are tagging.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

The Subversive Biology of Lynn Margulis

As she aims a steady gaze of quiet intelligence at you, brace for her rapier wit and sharp humor. She can be truly stubborn at times; she knows when she's right and digs in like a Kraglet from Tarsus. She's a remarkable woman and also my hero. Dr. Lynn Margulis is a Distinguished University Professor of Geosciences at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. She was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1983 and received the Presidential Medal of Science in 1999.

But it wasn't always so.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Women in Science

As an optimistic alien just visiting this planet, every Friday I feature a site, blog and/or person who impresses me with their optimism, entertainment, and contribution to society and the blogging community, generally. Today I feature an excellent blog by Peggy Kolm called "Women in Science", a topic dear to my heart. In Peggy's words it's a blog "dedicated to the women in science and engineering, past and present." Peggy's done a superlative job at making science palatable and interesting to women by focussing on successes and opportunities alike. It's a pursuit worth pursuing, particularly when one considers that young women still only make up a small portion of the science/math/engineering workforce (and not for lack of intelligence or creativity!)

Her site is worth visiting for her blogroll alone, which literally swells (three columns worth!) with a rich cornucopia of listings including:

  • sites for Girls interested in Math, Science and Engineering
  • women who blog about science and engineering
  • sites about women in science
  • professional organizations
Peggy's posts are informative yet succinct and vary from science book reviews to the latest news. Here are a few examples:

  • a feature on Associate Professor of Interactive Biology at the University of Texas, Camille Parmesan, who is conducting research on the effect of climate change on wildlife
  • an opinion piece on how scientists are portrayed in comics
  • Glamour magazine's top ten women scientists

Peggy even posted a feature on one of my personal heroes, Dr. Lynn Margulis, who revolutionized the way we think about life on earth by revealing connections that link the planet and all living things into one organic system. Margulis helped develop the Gaia Theory with Dr. James Lovelock and posited the endosymbiotic basis of cellular evolution. More on her in my next post!

Peggy manages another blog called "Biology in Science Fiction", another subject dear to my heart. But I'll leave that one for another Friday...

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Sci-fi Writers Join War on Terror

Here's an excerpt of the article from US Today:

Looking to prevent the next terrorist attack, the Homeland Security Department is tapping into the wild imaginations of a group of self-described "deviant" thinkers: science-fiction writers.

"We spend our entire careers living in the future," says author Arlan Andrews, one of a handful of writers the government brought to Washington this month to attend a Homeland Security conference on science and technology. Those responsible for keeping the nation safe from devastating attacks realize that in addition to border agents, police and airport screeners, they "need people to think of crazy ideas," Andrews says.

The writers make up a group called Sigma, which Andrews put together 15 years ago to advise government officials. The last time the group gathered was in the late 1990s, when members met with government scientists to discuss what a post-nuclear age might look like, says group member Greg Bear. He has written 30 sci-fi books, including the best seller "Darwin's Radio".

Now, the Homeland Security Department is calling on the group to help with the government's latest top mission of combating terrorism.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Faithful Blogging

A new blog is born every minute or thereabouts...You know the statistics better than I. What does this blogging explosion really mean to us? What can it mean to this living planet, this breathing network of plants animals and minerals of which we are a part and upon which we depend?

“As a society, we have become obsessed with connectedness,” said Steven Strogatz, author of “Sync: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order”. He goes on to describe how we are making sense of complex networks that have recently infiltrated our lives. “Networks whose reach is immense, whose structure we can only dimly perceive, and whose functioning bewilders us.” In John Guare’s 1990 play, “Six Degrees of Separation”, one of his characters ponders the connectivity of life on the planet:

I read somewhere that everybody on this planet is separated by only six other people. Six degrees of separation. Between us and everybody else on this planet. The president of the United States. A gondolier in Venice…I am bound to everyone on this planet by a trail of six people…every person is a new door, opening up into other worlds.

Network theorists, when they study an abstract pattern of dots connected by lines are concerned with the pattern, the “architecture of relationships, not the identities of the dots themselves. One can draw a metaphor with information, what it is and how it is dispensed and shared among people. Laszlo Barabasi, a Transylvanian physicist showed that the distribution of links on the Web is skewed to the left with a very long and heavy tail to the right. A handful of sites on the Internet are much more connected than others, with many more incoming or outgoing links than average, with the billions of remaining pages languishing in obscurity with no incoming links at all.

What network theorists found was that the Internet, despite being an unregulated, unruly labyrinth where anyone can post anything and link it to any other page at will, is self-organizing and follows the same pattern that persists in the ‘small-world’ (e.g., with a tendency to ‘short-cut’ and cluster like the brain) and “scale-free” (wide range) patterns so prevalent in Nature (e.g., “the food-web of species preying on one another; the meshwork of metabolic reactions in a cell, the interlocking boards of directors of a large corporation, even the structure of the English language itself” says Strogatz). Laszlo Barabasi, a Transylvanian physicist, showed that the Internet was both fragile and robust, showing properties of resilience much like living cells (e.g., in protein interactions, the most highly connected proteins were the most important ones for the cell’s survival; not unlike CNN and Yahoo on the Web). The Web is also very fluid and those ‘nodes’ or clusters change (not unlike a low budget hit that starts out slowly and builds by word of mouth).

Is internet blogging a tool our global society can use to self-organize? And, if so, can this grassroots social movement influence humanity toward a better world?...As a good friend of mine would say, Let’s “Make it so!”

Recommended Reading:
Barabási, Albert-László and Albert Réka. 1999. Emergence of scaling in random networks. Science 286: 509-512.
Jung, Carl G. 1973. Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principal. Princeton University Press, New Jersey
Strogatz, Steven. 2003. Sync: the Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order. Hyperion, New York, N.Y. 338pp.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Is Blogging Clogging the Internet?

Thanks to fellow SF writer, Crawford Kilian, I recently came across an interesting, though rather irksome excerpt in the Globe and Mail that featured a new book by Andrew Keen, a 47-year old Briton, entitled: "The Cult of the Amateur: how today's internet is killing our culture". Keen argues that basic notions of expertise are under assault amid a cultural shift in favour of the amateurism of blogs, MySpace and other popularity-driven sites, said the Globe and Mail.

"Millions and millions of exuberant monkeys...are creating an endless digital forest of mediocrity," wrote Keen. His polemic attacks the "cut and paste" ethic of Web users, who he claims are robbing professionals of their livelihoods by searching Google to copy other's work. Keen calls them "intellectual kleptomaniacs", "digital thieves of media content in a post-Napster era who spread gossip and scandal". The Globe and Mail went on to say "the Web allows anyone to post their most intimate thoughts, views or even outright lies, without any editing, under the assumption that the crowd will correct any mistakes. Keen calls for efforts to balance out the Web's powers of instant publishing against society's need for accountability."

I find Keen's position elitist and undemocratic. And dangerous.

Friday, June 8, 2007

"Make it so!" says Jean-Luc Picard

It's Friday again and instead of just directing you to a site with a synopsis of why I've featured them, I thought I'd have them visit here instead. So, today's guest of honor is Captain Jean-Luc Picard, Captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise in a Galaxy far, far, away...wait, that's from another universe. I'll have you know that it was quite an accomplishment I pulled off but I managed to pull some strings with the Time Management Authority and here he is! And looking impeccably spry and handsome for someone who's just jumped back in time ~300 years.

Once I lure him aboard my ship with Starbucks Coffee and fresh scones with real Devonshire clotted cream and jam, we settle into the aft lounge to sit for the interview. My stomach roils as my heart races like a Metallica rif. Even my palms are sweating; good thing we already shook hands. This guy's a frelling SF icon, after all!

As if recognizing my discomfort, he gives me a warm and reassuring smile that invites intellectual intimacy. That's Picard's moniker: to ooze erudite competence yet blaze with genuine warmth at the same time.

"So, Captain Picard--"

"Please, call me Jean-Luc," he insists and flashes one of those smouldering intelligent smiles that George Clooney only wished he could deliver. Jean-Luc savors a bite of scone and clotted cream then he picks up the cup of steaming coffee. I notice that his pinky even extends as he sips quietly. Ah! These enlightened cultured men of the future! Then I gather up my self and begin the interview:

SF Girl: "What made you choose the career of a Starship Captain instead of, say, a gardner or garbage collector?"

Picard: Raising a brow just slightly at my last words, he responds with calm dignity, "Well, as you know I've always had an interest in fine wines and growing grapes as a vinter. In fact I do a little on the side ." To my surprise, he brings out a bottle of Chateau Picard red wine and hands it to me. "For you." I bluster my thanks and hope I'm not blushing as I accept the bottle. "Anyway," he continues amiably, "The way I see it, being the captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise is a little like gardening. I tend and water my crew and nurture them with sound direction and fair discipline. Yes, it's a little like gardening, SF Girl..." He ends with that beguiling heart-melting smile again.
SF Girl: "So, Jean-Luc..." I delight in the fact that we're on a first name basis; clotted cream will do that, you know. "What's it like being the captain of a starship...keeping your rather disparate and unorderly crew productive and happy and that somewhat surly Starfleet Command at bay?"

Picard: His lips turn up into a slanted smile of understanding and I recognize true dedication in those sagely eyes that glitter with bright determination. "It's what I do," he says simply. "I make it so."
SF Girl: "Perhaps you could shed some light on the recent Galactic News press release about the environmental degradation of mining dilithium crystals on B planets and the wiping out of a whole race that depends on the special little light rays these crystals give off..."

Picard: I notice that brow creasing a little and his mouth firms. "It would be naive to think that any mining operation wouldn't have some impact. It's a balance of cost and benefit," he informs me. "I believe that reporter was a bit of a troublemaker from a far away galaxy. I think his name was Luc Skywalker."

SF Girl: "What's your opinion of the 50 trillion dollar deficit of the United Federation budget and the rumour that they're negotiating with some loan shark named Bib Fortuna from a nearby Universe for a loan?"

Picard: No comment. But he's now decidedly frowning with obvious disaproval. I've definitely got his goat and that frown is intimidating but I press on, letting a predatory smile slide across my face:

SF Girl: "Would you care to comment on the recent rumour that, in light of the dilithium debacle and the huge deficit, the Federation will be replacing your starship with a flying Smart Car?

Picard: No comment.

SF Girl: "Jean-Luc?"

Picard: No answer.

SF Girl: "Captain Picard?..."

Frell! He's gone. And he didn't even finish the scone and clotted cream. Clotted cream does that, you know...Gee, and I didn't even get a chance to ask him about how that safety manual was going with the crew...

Thursday, June 7, 2007

The Flood is Coming and all I have is a Row Boat!

I live on the floodplain of British Columbia's largest river, The Fraser River, and every year there is a flood warning. This year might be the worst; we're skirting the statistical probability from the last floods. The Fraser River drains a basin of 233,000 square kilometers and runs a distance of 1370 km, a large part of BC. The annual spring snowmelt freshets of the river's system pose the greatest flood hazard to those of us who occupy its floodplain.

Over the last century the Fraser River rose to flood heights more than 25 times. The greatest flood occurred n 1894, during the very early stages of settlement in the lower Fraser valley. Not too many people were affected, but it forewarned a hazard to those who did settle there of the potential for flooding in years to come. The next major flood happened in 1948, breaching dyking systems and flooding more than 22,000hectares, nearly one third of the entire lower Fraser Valley floodplain area. Estimated damage amounted to about $20 million. The next big flood came in 1972, when high temperatures in the Interior valleys toward the end of May caused rapid snowmelt. This time a lot more people were affected and damage amounted to about $10 million.

Well, it's been really hot recently and now its raining. It's been raining for a while...

Reminds me of the Great Flood...the deluge...sent by a deity or deities to destroy civilization as an act of devine retribution for ill thoughts and deeds. The Great Flood is a widespread theme in Greek and many other cultural myths. Known by the biblical story of Noah, it is alwo well known in other versions, such as stories of Matsya in the Hindu Puranas, Deucalion in Greek mythology and Utnaphishtim in the Epic of Gilgamesh. Many of our world's cultures share a story of a "great flood" that devastated earlier civilization.

Just so you know, I've temporarily moved my office to the Mother Ship, from where I'll be conducting my business for the next little while...just looking after the business...Oh, FRELL! I left the cat behind!

Ah...I just called my neighbour to send Sammy up via the teleporter. Sammy loves the teleporter. What can I say...he's such a suck...

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Limnologist Nina: the lake doctor is in

Well, it's about time I told you a little more about me...I'm a limnologist. No, that isn't someone who studies limbs. It comes from a Greek word limnos, which means fresh water. I study fresh water (e.g., lakes, rivers, ponds), and everything that's in it and around it. Heck, I even received a masters of science degree in it. I worked for a while in several universities and colleges, teaching biology courses, then decided to get out into the "real world" and became an environmental consultant. It means that I get to zoom around in speed boats, take water and sediment samples then analyse them and write reports for clients that teach them how to be good environmental citizens (see my posts on environmental citizenship--May 14-17, 2007, posts).

One of the things I do in my work is study water quality, what affects it and how to fix it. Limnologists define water quality in terms of its chemical, physical and biological properties. There's no magic bullet to measure water quality; we use several measurements in a kind of weight-of-evidence approach. Water quality is somewhat subjective, based on perspective. For instance water used for drinking can be used for irrigation but not all water used for irrigation is potable or will meet drinking water standards. A common phenomenon that limnologists study is something called "eutrophication". Eutrophication describes the natural process of aging for a lake or pond, with the gradual input of nutrients and sediment from erosion and precipitation. When the process is sped up through the release of nutrients and industrial and municipal effluent and poor land use practices, then we have a problem. Enhanced eutrophication is characterized by algal blooms (that scummy layer on the surface), excessive weeds, increased pests and fish kills.

Here are a few facts about water that might interest you:

  • Some very simple organisms can survive without air, but none can grow without water.

  • About 83% of our blood is water. It helps digest our food, take in oxygen, transport body wastes, and control body temperature.

  • Freshwater lakes, rivers and underground aquifers hold only 3.5% or the world's water. Saltwater oceans and seas hold most of the rest.

  • 30% of the earth's fresh water exists as ice in the form of glaciers and ice caps.

  • Canada has more lake area than any other coutnry in the world.

  • 10 litres of water is needed to manufacture 1 litre of gasoline.

  • 1000 kilograms of water is required to grow 1 kilogram of potatoes.

  • One litre of oil can contaminate up to two million litres of water.

  • Many homes lose more water from leaky taps than they need for cooking and drinking.

Next post, I'll talk a little bit about urban waterways and their unique properties and challenges.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Eco-Living in Sweden

When my family and I traveled through Sweden recently, I was struck by the modern look of their cities. In fact, I was told that one of their kings had long ago ordered the demolishing of their castles in an attempt to discourage the hording of power among the nobles. I'd forgotten that Sweden is one of the leading countries in environmental awareness and environmental technology. I was just cleaning up my office lately and found an old (1993) but still relevant article by Canadian urban planner, Angela Evans, in Alternatives on "Eco-Living in Sweden". It talked about Swedish people building "eco-villages" built with solar technology, recycling and other environmental innovations.

The Swedish government is commited to environmentally-friendly living and supports the technology that helps them achieve this. By 1994 all household garbage had to be separated. 2010 is marked as the final year of nuclear power in the country.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Eco Geek: technology for the environment & home

It's Friday again and my showcase blog is "Eco Geek: technology for the environment--home". Eco Geek monitors the current explosion in technology designed to mitigate our impact on the environment. They report on clean technology, and provide good analysis and criticism, which I appreciate. Topics include robotic farms, organic LEDs, hybrid cars, "clean coal" (an oxymoron I particularly enjoyed reading about), tidal power and their latest post being affordable solar power. Here's a little of what they say (you should check the blog for more):

"Silicon is pretty expensive these days, and traditional solar panels need a lot of it to convert light to energy. But two of the great opportunities for expansion in solar is using less silicon, by concentrating light on smaller panels, and increasing efficiency by tilting panels to follow the sun...roof-mounted units called the 'heliotube' concentrates the sun's rays onto a very thin strip of silicon solar panels at the base of the tube...These panels use 88% less photovoltaic material, but are almost as efficient per square foot as traditional solar panels." Eco Geek discusses some of the flaws and solutions in the works.
As a home owner thinking of converting our house into solar power, I was particularly interested in this post. We'll be doing a lot of research before we make our final decisions but that's where it starts.