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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Finding My Calling At The End Of The World

A worker checks on the repairs to the Large Hadron Collider following the Quench Incident.

Back in November 2009, the physicists, engineers and technicians at the  state of the art CERN facility worked diligently to uncover the secrets of our Universe.  Their work on a series of twenty-one million dollars in repairs to the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) following an operating was coming to an end.  They were days away from restarting the particle accelerator when more than 100 terrorists took over the laboratory deep beneath the Alps on the border between France and Switzerland.  The terrorists held more than the facilities, scientists and technicians hostage – they threatened the entire world.  If their demands weren’t met, terrorists would turn on the LHC and create black holes that could destroy the Earth.  The United Nations Security Council quickly tabled its debate over child soldiers and pondered its response to this existential threat.  Fighting the insanity gripping the Council and the terror washing over the world stood an unlikely hero – the delegate to the Security Council from the Republic of Uganda. Continue reading

The Institutional Road to Maternity Leave for Carnegie Mellon University

CMU's "Walking to the Sky"

CMU’s “Walking to the Sky”

In July 2014, Megan Leitch, a civil engineering doctoral candidate at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), met with her adviser to negotiate a leave of absence. At the time, CMU allowed graduate students time off during official university holidays, and had a policy for unpaid leave if more than a week was desired. But Megan was interested in a type of leave that was not addressed: maternity leave.

“Even though I knew he would be OK with it, I still was nervous to tell [my adviser] I was pregnant,” says Megan. “I ended up just walking into his office and blurting it out.”
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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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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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Animal Tales

I want to share a personal perspective. I’ve lived my whole life caring for pets: cats, turtles, frogs, a praying mantis I found in the backyard. I wrote a rock opera about my sister’s hamster. In my professional life, I work with zebrafish for research. In short, I’m a vegetarian who believes strongly in the ethics of animal research. In this column I want to share stories of working with animals, its joys and frustrations, and pay some small tribute to the animal lives that make it possible for me to live so long, and in such extraordinary health.

Working with animals can be emotionally hard. Sometimes it’s hard even to watch, the way surgery is hard to watch – a part of me knows the higher purpose, another part has a hard time ignoring a knife that cuts into a person’s chest. In the same way, in research, I see the kindred spark of life in every mouse I’ve ever held, and when they pass through that thin boundary between living and dead, I feel it. Here’s why I keep doing it: Continue reading

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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