SciTechBlog
March 23, 2009

From the TED conference at USC

Posted: 05:03 PM ET

Today's TEDxUSC conference - a one-day event at the University of Southern California's Stevens Institute for Innovation - kicked off with the tickling of electronic ivories by Qi Zhang, a doctoral candidate at USC's Thornton School of Music. Roughly 1,200 people packed the school's red-curtained Bovard Auditorium for the conference, which was supported in part by CNN.

Krisztina Holly of USC's Stevens Institute for Innovation

Conference speakers were scheduled to give 18-minute talks on ideas that will change the future. (For more on TEDx, click here.)

Here's an account of the conference from student bloggers inside the hall:

No cell phones allowed. A secret program that wasn’t revealed until today. The announcement that the doors will be closed throughout the event. But I was most intrigued by the miniature porcelain bells we received with our nametags. We jingled up until the very moment the doors opened. We were told the bells would be explained later in the event.

Krisztina "Z" Holly, the director of USC's Stevens Institute, then opened the event with a quick, mind-stimulating event: The audience was asked to watch a video and count the number of times a basketball was passed back and forth. Although a gorilla also appeared on the screen, most people were so focused on the ball passing and the task at hand - counting - that they didn't even see the gorilla. The point of the exercise was to illustrate the importance of serendipity and to be aware of what's going on around us - even while focusing intensely. The conference is off to a great start.

Holly is now talking about the role of innovation at USC and why the university is hosting the TEDx conference for the first time. She is giving a preview of what to expect throughout the day, and says there will be a few "surprises" not listed in the program. She said "innovation is all about taking risks," and noted that USC is the first university to "experiment" and sponsor TEDx.

Chris Anderson of the TED conference is now speaking about TED as a whole and how the organization has broadened its mission to include the nurturing of ideas, how today's event is a "big deal" and that audience members are "guinea pigs." He is asking audience members to send him feedback on today's event, because he hopes to make similar programs available at other universities and groups.

USC Provost C.L. Max Nikias opened his talk with the insight that the so- called "educated classes" are divided between those who believe they understand how their world works and those who want to know but realize they do not. He said the creative insights that represent true progress inevitably constitute a new discovery that no one saw coming. There can be no knowledge without the recognition of past ignorance, and neither can there be discovery without the recognition of absence.

We can view nearly every great scientific discovery as a journey out of simplistic ignorance into complex awareness. Indeed, great discovery inevitably requires repudiating the simplistic truths of earlier eras. In this path of greater knowledge, Provost Nikias encourages us to embrace what he calls "intellectual friction," or the often disconcerting exposure to different views.

- USC students Brooke-Sidney Gavins, Keaton Gray, Matt Harrison, Emily Henry, Kate Mather, Greg McDonald, Larissa Puro and Deborah Stokol

Filed under: science • technology


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March 20, 2009

Spot climate change in your backyard

Posted: 04:54 PM ET

As you may have read, the Obamas are planting a vegetable garden. Seem like big news? Perhaps not, but I have a feeling one reason this tidbit is currently the No. 1 read story on the NYTimes homepage is that many Americans are itching for a lost connection to the land and the outdoors.

spring bloom

Some see the organic garden as a distraction from Obama’s gaffe over the Special Olympics or the ever-present AIG bonus debate, but it seems like it also hits on something larger.

Just take a look at what iReporters are saying about what they’ve learned from past generations about saving money and fending for themselves. (Post your 'victory garden' stories here). Many bring up gardens. And, in a recent interview with a four-generation family, younger members talked about how they wish they had the same survival skills their grandparents did. Gardening is chief among them.

I’m no master gardener. I tried for the first time last year: the jalapenos and Roma tomatoes were delicious, but mostly were overshadowed by the hip-high weeds that I let grow up between them most of the summer. But it was fun to try.

So, in that spirit, here are a couple tips for trying out your green thumb and learning a bit of science this season:

1. Become a volunteer scientists: Hoards of backyard scientists across the country again are participating in Project BudBurst. Check out their Web site and be part of a group effort to map the blooming of plants. Your small effort can help scientists track big trends, like climate change.

2. Learn about your local environment: Check out this USA Today story on planting maps - they’re changing, perhaps because of global warming. Learn what the climate is like in your area to better understand what will grow and when.

3. Find local food: Across the country people are banding together and sharing resources to get fresh food locally. Some join food coops, others, like guerrilla gardeners, take over public spaces to make group gardens. Local farmers' markets are another option.

Feel free to share you stories in the comments or on iReport.

Filed under: climate change • environment • gardening • science


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February 16, 2009

Was Darwin a Buddhist?

Posted: 05:35 PM ET
Darwin's views of compassion are curiously similar to those of Buddhism, one researcher says.

Darwin's views of compassion are curiously similar to those of Buddhism, one researcher says.

Just days after the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin, the father of evolutionary theory, journalists and scientists from all over the world converged to confront a fascinating connection: Some of Darwin's views have a lot in common with Buddhist teachings.

Speaking at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, psychologist Paul Ekman, known for his research showing the universality of facial expressions across cultures, told us that Darwin's descriptions of compassion, as well as his view of morality as it relates to compassion, closely mirror Buddhist ideas.

"There’s always the possibility that two wise people looking at the same species will come up with the same conclusions," said Ekman, who co-wrote a book with the Dalai Lama on compassion called "Emotional Awareness: Overcoming the Obstacles to Psychological Balance and Compassion."

It turns out that Darwin's friend Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, a botanist and explorer, visited Tibet in 1847. He became familiar with Buddhist views there. He also wrote letters to Darwin. This is just one of many ways that Darwin could have been influenced by Buddhist teachings, Ekman said.

For Darwin and Buddhists, the seed for compassion is in the mother-infant relationship - this is "simple compassion," Ekman said. Then there's global compassion - for example, sending money and clothes to victims of a natural disaster. Finally, heroic compassion means risking your own life to save another - and you probably don't know if you have heroic compassion unless you've been in a situation like that, Ekman said.

The fundamental idea in both Darwin's writings and Buddhist views of compassion is that "when I see you suffer, it makes me suffer, and that motivates me to reduce your suffering so I can reduce my suffering," Ekman said.

The curious coincidence of views serves as a backdrop for understanding the nature of compassion, he said.

"I’m not by any means accusing Darwin of plagiarism," he explained.

What do you think? Does this link between Darwin and Buddhism have greater implications? Read more about Darwin on CNN.com

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Filed under: Evolution • science


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January 26, 2009

Banana hammer cold

Posted: 11:13 AM ET

From the West, to Midwest, the Northeast to parts of the South it's cold. I mean banana hammer cold. Never seen that measurement on the thermostat? Well, you've obviously never been to Minnesota in the winter.

How cold is it? Cold enough to turn a banana into a hammer. Photo: Getty Images

Meteorologist Jonathan Yuhas from Minneapolis affiliate KARE showed CNN's Heidi Collins what last week's subzero temperatures could do to everyday items.

According to KARE, on January 15 it was negative 21 degrees Fahrenheit, factoring in the windchill. That's just 17 degrees warmer than the freezing point for liquid mercury. And one more reason I will not visit Minnesota in the winter.

Now, bubbles don't shatter and hot water doesn't turn to a frozen cloud in normal weather conditions. It has to be cold. Very cold. Cold enough to pass those items' freezing limit.

Generally defined, a freezing point is the temperature where the liquid state of a particular compound freezes to form a solid. For freshwater, this temperature is 32 degrees Fahrenheit. For a banana or other foods, it depends.

A work by Dr. Richard W. Hartel of the University of Wisconsin-Madison states that "foods are mixtures of various ingredients, some of which affect phase behavior of water.." Meaning, since foods contain sugars, salts, proteins, fats, flavors, etc., there is no one broadly defined freezing point for food. For fruits, Hartel gave a general freezing point between 30.4 – 27.1 degrees Fahrenheit.

Hartel also gave the average freezing points of some other food categories:

Vegetables: 30.6 – 26.7 F
Meat: 28.9 – 28.0 F
Egg: 31 F
Milk: 31 F

Ice, snow, banana hammers, frozen bubbles–at 21 below, they're all the same. Frozen.

According to bubblemania.com, which is my authority on everything bubble-related, it is possible to freeze bubbles. Our iReporters also proved us that. But once the bubble freezes, it's only a matter of time before they shatter.

This is because when a bubble is blown into subzero temperatures, the warm air inside the bubble quickly contracts. The volume of air becomes lower, and the bubble crumples under its own weight.

CNN iReporters also got in on the action, freezing everything from food to flash-freezing hot water. Others are using the freezing weather to go green. iReporter Kyle Aevermann shared his use of a "natural freezer" in Chicago's subzero temperatures.

The Food and Safety Inspection Service, a branch of the USDA, recommends against doing that, however. The agency's Web site Fact Sheet states: "When it is freezing outside and there is snow on the ground, it seems like a good place to keep food until the power comes on; however, frozen food can thaw if it is exposed to the sun's rays even when the temperature is very cold. Refrigerated food may become too warm and foodborne bacteria could grow. The outside temperature could vary hour by hour and the temperature outside will not protect refrigerated and frozen food."

So besides food, what else have you found freezing point for? Wet laundry? An umbrella? We want to know. Send in your iReports. Leave a comment.

- Brandon Ancil, CNN.com

Filed under: science • Weather


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December 24, 2008

The Water Bullet

Posted: 01:55 PM ET

It's a bird! It's a plane! It's Water Bullet!

iReporter Larren Unruh submitted video of a test drop of the MX-311 Water Bullet.

Larren Unruh sent iReport.com a cool video of the test drop of a device called the MX-311 Water Bullet, a high-impact safety harness. Watch the video here.

Inventor Maximus WillHammer has spent the last five years working on it, motivated by what he considers a lack of understanding in the safety industry of the needs of today's tradesmen.

The aircraft was designed around the idea of finding a safer way to bring data or humans back from space. The video shows WillHammer's unmanned test drop earlier this month at the Arrowrock Reservoir outside Boise, Idaho. Check out Willhammer's Web site for more on how it works.

Tell us about a technology breakthrough, and your video could be featured on this blog.

- Stephen Walsh, CNN.com

Filed under: Aviation • Physics • science


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November 10, 2008

Great big ozone hole this year - not as bad news as it sounds

Posted: 09:29 AM ET

The ozone hole over the Antarctic, which grows to its maximum annual size in September, peaked at the fifth-highest size ever since measurements began in 1979 this year, according to scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.noaa-ozone

But experts say that the "fifth-largest" designation may not necessarily be bad news at all.  They're sticking to predictions that the ozone hole will repair itself over the rest of the 21st Century.  Colder-than-average temperatures and strong high level winds helped widen the hole this season.  Warmer weather as the Antarctic summer starts up helps close up the hole each year.

It's been nearly four decades since the first research drew links between man-made chemicals and destruction of ozone in the upper atmosphere.  Chlorofluorocarbons and freon - once widely used in air conditioners and spray cans respectively, were among the substances that broke down stratospheric ozone - the key to protecting us from harmful solar radiation.  Projections indicate that a thinning ozone layer could lead to increases in human skin cancer, eye cataracts, and other maladies.  Dutch scientist Paul Crutzen and Americans Mario Molina and Sherwood Rowland shared the 1995 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for their discoveries.

Global concern over ozone damage led to what is widely regarded as a remarkably successful international treaty.  The Montreal Protocol was ratified in 1987 and took full effect nine years later, banning most uses of ozone-destroying chemicals.

Scientists have reported a substantial reduction in the levels of ozone-destroying chemicals reaching the stratosphere.  But CFC's, freon, bromides, and other ozone-eaters are particularly long-lasting, and may take much of the rest of this century to dissipate.  "The decline of these harmful substances to their pre-ozone hole levels ... will take decades," said NOAA chemist Stephen Montzka.

Translation:   Don't lose the sunscreen.   Ozone layers have thinned planet-wide, and during the late-winter weather in either hemisphere, ozone protection reaches its lowest levels near the poles.  Less ozone in the upper atmosphere means more exposure to the ultraviolet radiation that can cause skin cancer.

NOAA's Ozone measurements page can be found here

NASA offers daily updated graphics and animations on the size of the ozone hole here.

Peter Dykstra   Executive Producer   CNN Science, Tech & Weather

Filed under: environment • meteorology • NASA • science • Weather


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November 7, 2008

One campus's solution for "Squirrels Gone Wild!"

Posted: 11:06 AM ET

Squirrels at the University of California-Davis have it made.

5300 acres of lush habitat.

The eastern fox squirrel is living large on the University of California Davis campus. Wildlife scientists will use a contraceptive vaccine to try to control the population. Photo courtesy UC Davis

More than a few crumbs from students and faculty who enjoy meals and snacks outside.

(And we're not talking the average "frugal student" ramen noodles and peanut butter and jelly. UC-Davis is home to The Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science.)

With nary a predator, there's been a population explosion of the non-native eastern fox squirrels, from zero to about 400 in the past seven years. And now there's worry the critters might get more aggressive, biting the collegiate hands that feed them. Squirrels can carry bacteria that is harmful to humans. And an unchecked population could become a threat to the regional economy, spreading to nearby farmland and chomping away at the local fruits and nuts.

When college officials searched for answers to these potential nuisances, they had to go no further than scientists on campus.

And as one might expect from a campus in California, the plan is to control the population with no harm to the animals involved.

Squirrel contraception.

"This new birth control method may potentially help control squirrels or other species, such as white tailed deer," said Sara Krause, a doctoral student in ecology who designed the plan.

"If we can test a birth control method and find it safe and effective, there's a possibility of it being a breakthrough method in both urban and suburban areas," she said.

Continued unchecked procreation and expansion of their territory could mean farmers and ranchers would put an end to the invasive fox squirrels permanently. Squirrels can do serious damage to almond and walnut orchards.

The birth control method being used is a vaccine, called GonaCon.

Krause explained that it's an immunocontraceptive vaccine, blocking the pathway to the production of sperm and eggs. One shot leaves the animals sterile for about two years. And the same vaccine works on both males and females.

(Now there's a concept that every female on the planet can appreciate.)

Krause and others have just begun placing 20-40 humane traps around the campus. The traps will be checked two to four times a day. On this first round, captured animals will be examined, marked with a nontoxic dye, and let go. The squirrels will be observed until next summer, when they'll be re-captured. Then, some will get the contraceptive injection, others a placebo. Again, they'll be set free to roam the campus.

If the experiment works as planned, the number of squirrels will decline to a sustainable number within ten years. And federal wildlife biologists could use the contraceptive on other prolific progeny producers.

By Marsha Walton, CNN Science and Technology Producer

Filed under: Animals • environment • science


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November 5, 2008

How will a President Obama impact science, tech and the environment?

Posted: 12:22 PM ET

An eight-year presidency is coming to an end, and so is a two-year campaign full of hope, mud, hockey moms and long-forgotten candidates (Where have you gone, Vilsack and Tancredo?).  But in the end, "change" is the word of the day.

What will an Obama presidency mean for science and tech?

The transition from a Bush Administration to a Barack Obama Administration implies enormous policy differences in just about every one of the issues we cover in this blog.  

Here are some questions for the next four years:

Science:  The Bush Administration drew heavy criticism for allegedly censoring or softening federal scientific reports on global warming, endangered species, and other issues when the science didn't match Administration policy.   Will Obama clean this up?  Or will he draw fire from the opposite political direction?

Space:  The Space Shuttle faces mandatory retirement in two years.  Is Obama, and is America, ready to commit the money to continue exploration in the wake of our financial meltdown?

Tech:  From the classroom to the R&D lab, concerns are mounting that America has lost its research and innovation mojo.  Can the new administration turn this around?

Environment:  Both Obama and McCain drew sharp distinctions with the Bush Administration on addressing global warming.  Obama's campaign called for 80 percent reductions in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2050.   Are we ready?  Can he deliver?

Energy:  Obama belatedly, and not too enthusiastically, embraced the possibility of expanding offshore drilling during the campaign.  He did so after the polls showed McCain scoring points with the "Drill, Baby Drill!" mantra.  Did Obama really mean what he said?  And now that gas is under $2.50 a gallon again for most Americans, do we still care?

Here are quick links to President-Elect Obama's campaign pledges on energy/global warming, environment, technology, and space.   Feel free to hang on to these links to see how many campaign promises are broken or kept.  

And let us know what you think.

–Peter Dykstra, Executive Producer, CNN Science, Technology & Weather

Filed under: environment • Politics • science • Space


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September 9, 2008

The world will not end this week

Posted: 03:21 PM ET
The Large Hadron Collider control room, near Geneva, Switzerland

The Large Hadron Collider control room, near Geneva, Switzerland

Scientists are about to fire up the Large Hadron Collider, the world's largest particle accelerator. The 17-mile long circular tunnel runs through Switzerland, and a bit of France. The object of the game (the $8 billion game, by the way) is to smash protons into each other, replicating the conditions an instant after the Big Bang.

The practical applications for this? None.
The prize? Possibly answering a key question about everything. The search for the Higgs boson, a particle that's not yet discovered, but theorized. Physicists believe that the Higgs - sometimes called the "God Particle" - is what creates mass.

Sadly, there's been a mild media frenzy (including CNN, which published an AP story on the topic last June) focused not on the potential for discovery, but on concerns that there's a theoretical chance that smashing these two proton streams together at nearly the speed of light will create tiny black holes that will unite, swallow up the Large Hadron Collider, then swallow up Switzerland, France, Earth, and the rest of the solar system.

As I understand it, there's a universe of difference between the massive black holes of space that swallow up matter, and the tiny ones that would be generated in the LHC, each with a lifespan of a tiny fraction of a nanosecond.

That hasn't stopped a wave of online protests, and a lawsuit in US court to stop the project (the US Department of Energy is a participant in the collider experiment).

Okay, it should be clear by now that particle physics is not my strong suit. Botany isn't either, and Walter Wagner, the guy who filed the lawsuit, is a card-carrying botanist. He also filed a similar suit against the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, which has been operating at Brookhaven National Labs since 2000, with no apparent impact to Life As We Know It.

I'd love to hear your take on all this. If you share Mr. Wagner's concerns, please get your comments in by 3:30AM ET Wednesday. If not, take your time. I'm pretty sure the world will still be here tomorrow, when testing begins, or through the next month as the tests complete and they try out the Real Thing. If I'm wrong, I'll buy every one of you a nice lunch. But I'm pretty sure we'll go back to destroying the world the slow, methodical, hard way, and not in a flash while you're sleeping tonight.

Peter Dykstra Executive Producer CNN Science, Tech, and Weather

Filed under: Large Hadron Collider • Physics • science • Scientists


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August 25, 2008

A whale of a rule for shippers

Posted: 04:23 PM ET

U.S. government scientists are one step closer to publishing a rule aimed at protecting the endangered North Atlantic Right Whale from ship strikes.

A North Atlantic right whale spotted at the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary off Scituate, MA. Source: NOAA

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) filed its final environmental impact statement Monday, seeking public comment on its proposal to slow down commercial ships along parts of the East Coast where slow-moving right whales are found.

This is one of the most endangered of mammal species; only about 300 of the animals remain.

NOAA is proposing a 10-knot speed limit in right whale feeding grounds in and around Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and inside the "calving grounds" off Jacksonville, Florida.

The slowdown also applies to a 20-mile "bubble" near mid-Atlantic ports where and when the whales are migrating. The original proposal by NOAA scientists more than a year ago called for a 30-mile caution area around ports.

The shipping industry has been adamantly opposed to this rule. The World Shipping Council, representing more than two-dozen companies, told the government that such a speed limit would botch tightly controlled container ship schedules, make it more difficult for big ships to maneuver, and cost money.

These concerns sparked an internal debate within the Bush administration and delayed the rule. A final rule should have come out of the Office of Management and Budget over a year ago.

Right now, experts say commercial ships kill about two North Atlantic right whales every year. Even that number could mean the end of the species, according to both NOAA scientists and conservation groups.

- Alex Walker, CNN Science & Technology

Filed under: Animals • environment • science • Scientists


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Are you a gadgethead? Do you spend hours a day online? Or are you just curious about how technology impacts your life? In this digital age, it's increasingly important to be fluent, or at least familiar, with the big tech trends. From gadgets to Google, smartphones to social media, this blog will help keep you informed.

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