The Rogue Geo-engineer

Photo of iron sulfate dumping off the coast of Canada from http://phys.org/news/2012-10-canadian-knew-sea-fertilizing.html

In the summer of 2012, scientist and entrepreneur Russ George sailed purposefully past the coast of Vancouver to the archipelago of Haida Gwaii. There, he proceeded to dump 100 tons of iron sulfate into 10,000 square miles of ocean.

The Haida Indians had given him their blessing. George was the director of the Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation, and the Haida Indians were told that this iron would fertilize the plankton, a valuable feedstock for the native salmon. But George’s intentions went beyond fish farming: adding iron would allow swarms of plankton to blossom, which would draw down massive amounts of carbon dioxide. Russ George claimed to have found a solution for amending the starving salmon population and mitigating the rising concentration of greenhouse gases in one fell swoop.

Most experts, however, were infuriated.

Since then, George has become an infamous case of the dangerous line between ingenuity and recklessness. Supporters argue that such drastic measures may be needed in the future unless we somehow reduce our greenhouse gas emission. But most scientists and policymakers argue that his hasty deed had no scientific merit, and could cause irreversible damage to the ocean environment.

How could an experiment with such good intentions have gone so wrong?
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Cool Your Liquor

One glass of Knob Creek (on the right) with ice, one glass (on the left) with whiskey stones.

One glass of Knob Creek (on the right) with ice, one glass (on the left) with whiskey stones.

Last December, a friend gave me an early Christmas present. The package was a perfect cube, and hefty as a rock. “Whiskey stones!” I exclaimed after tearing off the wrapping paper, and promptly gave my friend a hug.

A week later, I was exchanging gifts with my undergrad friends over our annual Christmas brunch. One friend passed me a heavy gift bag. At the bottom of an assemblage of tissue paper sat a cubed box of whiskey stones. “Oh no,” bellowed a third friend, “I got Djuna whiskey stones too!”

My friends know me well.

Whiskey stones are marketed to fellow drinkers, who have indulged in the vice long enough to prefer the burn of whiskey straight. Whereas ice, the traditional cooling agent, melts and dilutes your cocktail, whiskey stones will chill your beverage without watering it down. Although 3 sets of whiskey stones would require an imbibing of alcohol excessive even for me, one box claimed that whiskey stones could also be used to cool coffee and tea for iced beverages.

Delighted by my new alcohol accessory acquisition, I immediately began adding whiskey stones to every beverage best served cold. I had grand plans of a new life enjoying undiluted tastes, secretly laughing while others unknowingly sipped cooled drinks with a weakened flavor. How disappointing it was when, after a few weeks, I swore I would never use my plethora of whiskey stones again. This was not due to any resolution to quit drinking caffeinated beverages or whiskey (you wish, Mom). Rather, it was simply thermodynamics.
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Trash to Gas: A Solution to Half Our Problems?

In Robert Zemeckis' "Back to the Future," Doc can toss garbage straight into the engine to power his car.

In Robert Zemeckis’ “Back to the Future,” Doc can toss garbage straight into the engine to power his car.

“New innovation from scientists,” read the subject line from my Mom’s email. Attached was a link to a Youtube clip of a male scientist balling plastic bags, sealing them in a steel vessel, and pushing a button. After a couple of hours, the eager scientist cracked open the vessel, and poured out a dark, ominous looking fluid. “People don’t know that garbage can be made into gasoline” the scientist beamed. Apparently after some refining, this scientist had converted plastic bags into gasoline.

My response was immediate: “Don’t go investing your money just yet. Plastic bags are a by-product of gasoline production. It would take a lot of energy to turn plastic bags back into gasoline, probably more energy than you would make.” I had put the thought out of my head, until one day when I was breezing through a fashion magazine (yes, some scientists read those too) and there was a short article about another woman who was also claiming she could turn plastic bags into gasoline. The idea was obviously gaining momentum. Could my opinion on trash-to-gas be jaded?
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Why computer scientists and linguists don’t always see eye-to-eye

Linguists have many theories about how language works. How much should computer scientists who work on language care?

Linguists have many theories about how language works. But how much should the computer scientists who work with language care? (CC image courtesy of Flickr/surrealmuse)

“You’ve just explained my entire life to me.” This was the last thing I was expecting to hear from Lori, my graduate advisor, in the midst of a discussion of my career plans. I gave a stiff smile and shifted uncomfortably in my chair. “What you just said,” she continued, “that’s why I’m here, not in a linguistics department. In a linguistics department in the 80’s, I might have felt like a hypocrite.”

What I’d said hadn’t been a deliberate attempt to enlighten a researcher 30 years my senior. I’d simply mentioned my preference for application-oriented research groups, because I care more about producing useful insights than true theories. Apparently, though, the distinction between usefulness and truth struck a chord with Lori: in the field she and I work in, what’s useful isn’t always true, and what’s true is often not useful. Lori, a linguist in a school of computer science, has found her career path to be largely determined by that distinction.

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Brain Power on the Baseball Field

titlePictureI was sitting in my college dorm room, working on some engineering homework, but I just couldn’t focus. My mind kept wandering back to the game. How could I have played so poorly? My teammates must hate me. Did I cost us a chance at the playoffs?

In college I played on the varsity baseball team and studied mechanical engineering. I worked hard on the practice team for 2 years and finally got my shot to start at third base as a junior. But things weren’t going according to plan. Third base has a long throw across the infield to first base, and I was having trouble making the throw accurately. By itself, this wasn’t unusual; every player goes through his funks and eventually works out of it. But despite hours of extra practice, I was stuck in a rut. My frustration culminated in a game in which I committed 4 throwing errors and we lost to an important division opponent by 1 run. My teammates had battled tooth and nail to make it a close game, and I literally threw it all away.

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Fixing Urban Sinkholes: A Noisy Solution to a Dirty Problem

Picture of 2010 sinkhole in Guatemala City.

Picture of 2010 sinkhole in Guatemala City.

The pounding starts at 7:00 AM every morning outside my house here in Pittsburgh, and it’s been like that for 8 months now. Every weekday, whether it’s a backhoe ripping through asphalt, a jackhammer shredding up the concrete, or a buzz saw dicing the sidewalk, there is a plethora of noise that I wake up to as they dig holes on my street. And why are they digging these holes? To fix a larger hole – a sinkhole.

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The Science of Potholes: A Pittsburgh Story

Braddock Ave has fallen victim to the common woe of potholes

Braddock Ave has fallen victim to the common woe of potholes

Another flat. I pull out the jack, grab the tire iron, and fumble the spare. As I switch out my tire, I curse the drivers, children, and small animals that pass without a sympathetic glance. On my way to the mechanic, I drive like an asshole, braking and swerving around the craters plaguing the streets. My tires receive no relief, as no street remains unscathed. Dropping my car off at the harried mechanic, I ponder how my tires could be so vulnerable to potholes. Why are potholes line up along the tire paths? Why do potholes cluster in packs? Why are most potholes round and cavernous?

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