Archive for April 3rd, 2009

The Wonders of SphereCasting

By Chris Mooney | April 3, 2009 3:16 pm

Yesterday, as previously mentioned, I was at the magnificent National Weather Center at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, giving a speech to this conference about science communication. I’m hoping that the talk—which covered anything from the work of the 18th century French philosophe the Marquis de Condorcet to the unfortunate depictions of science in Hollywood films—will eventually be available online. Meanwhile, though, I’d like to remark on a spectacular encounter I had at the event. We tend to complain and critique on blogs; this post will be the opposite.

sos_home_img.jpgIn the first floor lobby of the airy National Weather Center, where the tornado investigating devices “Dorothy” and “TOTO” are on display, there’s also a large suspended globe which acts as a spherical screen. Four projectors flash onto it simultaneously, so that it is possible to fully project the entire globe’s weather as provided by satellites. It’s called SphereCasting, NOAA’s “Science on a Sphere” program, and I can only call it magnificent. If there’s a better technology for explaining science to the interested public, I can’t think of it. And apparently there are now 30 such spheres in existence.

The sphere doesn’t merely allow one to display weather everywhere all at once. You can pretty much project anything onto it with the right program. You can make the sphere into Mars, or Jupiter, or Titan, or the Sun. The woman who gave me a brief tour of how it works even said she was waiting for the program that would let her turn it into the Death Star. And it’s hard to see why one couldn’t also project the results of global climate models up there. Frankly, the possibilities are vast, if not endless.

It was only a coincidence, but I encountered the Sphere while in the middle of reading a great early 19th century work of scientific exploration, Alexander von Humboldt’s Personal Narrative of a Journey to the Equinoctical Regions of the New Continent (South America). Humboldt, as our Princeton prof D. Graham Burnett explains, had a pioneering global vision of science. Frankly, it was far more than any single man could accomplish, but Humboldt sure tried. As he scaled mountains and thwacked his way through rainforests, he was constantly taking measurements with dozens of instruments—gauging temperature, pressure, humidity, and so on—as well as analyzing the ecological distributions of plant and animal species, rocks and minerals. Humboldt felt that by having a fully geographic picture of how all these different parameters varied, across the planet, universal laws would gradually present themselves.

Science on a Sphere is, in a sense, the ultimate culmination of Humboldt’s vision. Our instruments are vastly better–especially our satellites–and we now have so much good data that we can spatially organize it on an actual globe in real time. And then you can just go look—watching as hurricanes form, as the easterlies and westerlies flow, as the fronts move through and the temperatures change. While I’m not sure that there are any more universal laws to discover in this way, there’s still a great need to share those laws with the non-scientist public, and I can’t think of a better way of doing so.

Bonobos, Odds, Ends, And A 'Range Of Respected, Science-related Career Possibilities'

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | April 3, 2009 12:50 pm

1) As Carl already pointed out, my good friend Vanessa Woods is working with bonobos in Congo and unfortunately they are suffering from a mysterious virus:

lola.pngThe virus has infected over 20 bonobos and counting, and has already killed four. Another 3 have died, we aren’t sure of the cause, so it could be as many as seven, which means the sanctuary has already lost over a tenth of its population.

The symptoms are a dry cough, followed by a runny nose. But then the bonobos start hyperventilating, it’s like they can’t get enough air. They die as quickly as 72 hours after the initial symptoms. The problem is, the virus hasn’t seem to run its course, it’s been through the nursery twice, and is bouncing back and forth between the enclosures.

If you have heard anything about this illness in great apes, please write to To donate to Lola ya bonobo sanctuary where they desperately need medicine for these orphans, please visit

2) Because I’ve been traveling much of the week, the final panelist at the 2009 Science and Technology in Society Conference, Reynold Galope, will be featured on Monday.  I expect his topic, ‘Defining a Comparison Sample to Measure the Effect of Institutional Factors on Highly Creative Scientific Research: Issues and Options’ will provoke an interesting discussion.

3) A new science blog carnival will be published on 6 April at Scientia.  It’s for posts related to science, nature and medical topics and you can still submit entries here

4) For those with access to Science, there is a terrific editorial (very much related to a prominent theme of Unscientific America) by Bruce Alberts on page 13 of today’s issue:

One senses that we are reaching a tipping point, where students who prefer to work in the world of public policy, government, precollege education, industry, or law will no longer be viewed as deserting science. Faculty and students can then begin to talk honestly about a whole range of respected, science-related career possibilities. This is crucial, because we must promote the movement of scientists into many occupations and environments if our end goal is to effectively apply science and its values to solving global problems.

Exactly.  There are many ways to work in science and I’m pleased to see this emphasized by Science’s Editor-in-Chief. Read on here

To Hell In A Handbasket

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | April 3, 2009 9:41 am

When I checked email last night after returning from UVA, I was amused at how many folks sent over Andy’s post on sea cucumbers from the New York Times.  It’s nice to be recognized for one’s specialty, particularly when said specialty is the very charismatic cucumaria frondosa.  However, amusement quickly gave way to frustration and anger… You see, a report was just released by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization warning that sea cucumbers are in imminent danger of being over-harvested.

Uh, wait a sec… are you kidding me?!  We’ve known this for years

sea-cucumber.jpgThe very reason I worked on cukes in grad school was because they were an emerging fishery in the Gulf of Maine.  The traditionally harvested large species of fish like Cod had disappeared so they provided a new market. On top of that, the sea urchin fishery had recently experienced a classic boom and bust scenario.  That’s generally what happens when there’s little vested interest in maintaining populations beyond an initial gold mine bounty.  Turns out folks aren’t generally all that concerned about overexploitation.  Go figure.

Unlucky for cucumbers, fishermen are able to collect them with the same gear they already had for urchins.  Thus, they have been dragged up en masse given they’re relatively sedentary and congregate in piles. In other words, the little guys don’t have a fighting chance. And the high discount rate associated with this scenario led to a situation of cukes collected at warp speed.  Tractor trailers packed with critters were leaving the dock bound for processing plants every day.

The Gulf of Maine fishery picked up in earnest in 1994 and now we’re reading reports 15 years later that state the obvious about a worldwide trend:  This kind of pressure on stocks is not sustainable. The thing is, you don’t need a degree in sea cucumber-ology or even economics to figure out there’s trouble with that kind of pillage and plunder model.  Furthermore, the species of cucumber in the Gulf of Maine is not even particularly good to eat.  (Sea cucumbers are a delicacy in the far east where they are shipped after being freeze dried.).  The only reason anyone had been relegated to collect them there was because all of the traditionally harvested regions were already being depleted. And since human tastes are malleable, people adapt to what industry supplies. (For example, lobster and skate – historically the ‘poor fisherman’s dinner’ – are now featured at NYC’s finest restaurants). When one species declines, there is tremendous opportunity to cash in by exploiting the next that becomes readily available at a lower trophic level.

Of course we’re losing sea cucumbers–but it’s not news. And with no history or family tradition in emerging industries, even the guys on boats harvesting them knew the fishery was bound to collapse quickly.  ‘We’ll just move on to whatever’s left,’ they would tell me.  On a related note, there’s growing interest in algae.

So in 2009, FAO comes out with a report stating the obvious… Bully for themNow what?  The oceans are in dramatic decline and cucumbers (and other animals) can’t wait for the lag time associated with implementing new institutions.  This isn’t really about the loss of a single species because we’re all connected by way of trophic interactions.  In other words, humans are part of the whole system so when structure and composition of ‘parts‘ is altered, we’re all eventually affected in a myriad of ways. Shifting baselines have already resulted in relatively empty oceans–and sadly most of us accept the current status as pristine having no memory of what has been lost.

Furthermore, I’ve a vested interest in this particular story given I spent so many years with cukes.  As for these reports, it seems to me we’re essentially documenting the loss of biodiversity when we should be spending the time and effort to mitigate the impacts of a flawed system based on perverse incentives.  We can do better.  And we’ll have to.


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