Category: Past Articles

Finding Amelia Earhart’s Plane: New TIGHAR Expedition

The Internet doesn’t think very highly of Amelia Earhart. As a girl I was fortunate enough to do school projects on some great female role models. One that stands out in my memory was Amelia Earhart. Learning about great women helped form my conviction at an early age that women have as much to offer the world as men. I loved Amelia Earhart for what she represented to me: defiance, adventure and mystery. Reading this article in the Telegraph, and checking out the comments where she is called a “dumb woman” and “foolish” made me pause. The commenters also slam the effort to find out what happened to her based on the Telegraph’s claim that the expedition is “backed” by the U.S. Navy.

The article is about The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery’s (TIGHAR) planned trip this July to try to located the remains of Earhart’s Lockheed Electra aircraft. I’ve written before about TIGHAR and their efforts to find enough evidence to conclude that Earhart landed, and later died on the island of Nikumaroro in the Republic of Kiribati. According to some of the commenters finding out what happened to Earhart isn’t worth the effort. Some say because she was an idiot flying when she did and some say it isn’t worth it because of the money. Many of the commenters are up in arms that the Navy is “backing” the project on the grounds that the economy is still down and this is a stupid thing to spend money on.
I was surprised to see the Telegraph headline, “US Navy prepares mission to solve riddle of Amelia Earhart’s death” knowing that the TIGHAR expedition to find the plane was planned for this summer. When you read the Telegraph’s article, you can see that the expedition they are talking about is the one by TIGHAR. Now, TIGHAR is funded by contributions not federal money. It is not getting your tax payer dollars. I know this, because I googled. Having written about them before I went back to the TIGHAR website to see what they had to say about their alleged joint mission with the Navy.
This is what I found (pulled directly from their website) bolding is mine:

“As with previous TIGHAR expeditions, funding for this search is being raise entirely through contributions from private citizens, foundations and corporations. Lockheed Marting is leaidng a growing family of corporate sponsors. TIGHAR’s long-time sponsor FedEx is aboard with a major contribution in shipping services, and we are proud to announce that in addition to helping sponsor our expedition, Discovery Channel is producing a television special to air later this year documenting the search.

Underwater operations will be conducted for TIGHAR by Phoenix International, the U.S. Navy’s primary contractor for deep ocean search and recovery. We’ll sail from Honolulu July 2nd – the 75th anniversary of the Earhart disappearance. TIGHAR is deeply appreciative of the expressions of support voiced by Secretary Clinton, Secretary LaHood, Secretary Lambourne, Assistant Secretary Campbell, and Dr. Ballard.”

The U.S. Navy is not paying for TIGHAR’s expedition to try to locate Earhart’s plane. They say it themselves on their website, they are funded by private and corporate donations. The announcement by the State Department that they support and are backing the expedition is just that – a statement. The terms “support” and “backing” automatically make one think money. I thought money when I read the Telegraph’s headline and article. But in this case “support” and “backing” comes in the form of verbal acknowledgement and a few nice press pictures, not oodles of taxpayer dollars. It also probably helped get Phoenix International onboard to do the actual mapping/search, but they are going to be paid out of TIGHAR’s coffers.

Still, Earhart is just a stupid woman got herself killed by taking off on a poorly planned trip right? Even if all those commenters up in arms about their money going to something they think is silly have been mislead by the article there are still those that think Earhart doesn’t matter. I like the idea of going out there to try to figure out what really happened to Earhart because there is historic and social value to knowing how her story ended. She is an important figure in aviation history, women’s history, and United States history. She mattered. She mattered in her time, and for girls like me who read about her in books and start to believe that they can truly do anything with their life she still matters.
It isn’t a secret that I find Earhart inspiring. I’ve posted about her twice before this. Seeing her called dumb and foolish for trying to fly around the world annoys me. She took a risk, and she paid for it with her life. You mean to tell me no man has ever done that? She knew she could fail in her journey. She took off anyway. Was it a good choice? No. She made a bad choice, but the key word there is choice. She was a female aviator in the 1930’s who took her own life in her hands, she made choices. I admire Earhart because she lived her life in a way that gave her the ability to choose for herself. So I do support TIGHAR’s effort to find the plane and some conclusive evidence about what happened to her. I’m glad the State Department supports it too. I’m also glad that the funding is private, I think that is how it should be. Shame on the Telegraph for printing something so misleading.
If all I had to do was go to the TIGHAR website to find out how the State Department and Navy were involved in the expedition, there is no reason the Telegraph shouldn’t have done the same. Rather than making this a story about Earhart, the Telegraph article made this a story about government spending and waste. That isn’t the story at all. I would much rather have seen some real coverage of Earhart – the good and the bad – leading up to the 75th anniversary of her disappearance.

Alex the Parrot’s Last Addition Experiments

Last year while taking a class on human and animal relationships I learned about Alex the African grey parrot (Psittacus erithacus). At the time, Alex had already passed away (he died in 2007) but he was still renowned for his performance in cognition experiments conducted by psychologist Irene Pepperburg of Harvard University. I was thinking a lot about animal cognition back then, and I was impressed by what Alex did so I wrote a short post about his skills. We humans like to think of ourselves as elite, but too often we underestimate the abilities of other species.

alex-the-african-grey-parrot1The reason I bring up Alex is because I recently read this Nature News article about a new paper published by Pepperburg in the journal Animal Cognition (behind a pay wall, sorry) describing her last experiments with Alex on addition. The newly published paper describes Alex’s ability to successfully add together arabic numerals (the ones we use) up to eight. He was also able to come up with the total number of objects separated under three different cups. The experiments were still being conducted when Alex died, however Pepperburg says there was enough statistically significant evidence to suggest that Alex was really doing addition.
According to Ewen Callaway’s Nature News article, when asked “how many total?” in response to questions like 3+4 or 4+2 Alex chose the right answer nine out of 12 times. When presented sequentially with three sets of objects underneath three cups, Alex was able to total the objects correctly eight out of 10 times. It used to be believed that the ability to understand the numerical value of a set was dependent on language, and thus a specifically human characteristic.
To date, Alex and a chimpanzee named Sheba are the only non-human primates that have been able to successfully perform addition. While two examples isn’t exactly a lot, the research is exciting because it demonstrates that a higher level of thinking is possible in other species. So are we headed for a planet of the parrots? I’m going to go with no, but it is still very cool to see what Alex was capable of doing.

Polar Bears Resort To Cannibalism

If a picture is worth a thousand words, for me this one is worth a thousand nightmares:
Photograph by Jenny Ross

Photograph by Jenny Ross

The photograph was captured by Jenny Ross, an environmental photojournalist working in Olgastretet, a part of the Svalbard archipelago, located in the Arctic north of Norway. Ross co-authored a paper with Dr. Ian Sterling a biologist with Environment Canada and a professor at the University of Alberta, about the photographs and observed instances of cannibalism among polar bears.

For anyone who reads Science Decoded regularly, I don’t have to tell you that polar bears are sort of my thing. I’ve written about them being Irish, mysteriously dying, having osteoarthritis, status as endangered, and their habitat needs. I make no bones about the fact that they are my favorite and I love them. I’ve loved them since I was a little kid, and have a large collection of polar bear themed…stuff. From earrings to ice cream scoops, I’ve got it all. My collection doesn’t include nightmare inducing, zombie-evoking images of polar bears eating each other. The child in me is horrified by what I now know to be a normal occurrence.

Yes, that’s right. While the above photograph might be some of the most jarring evidence to date about intraspecies polar bear predation, the behavior isn’t abnormal. In fact, according to Dr. Stirling instances of infanticide (killing baby bears) and predation on older bears, in addition to cannibalism have been known to Inuit hunters in Canada and Greenland and reported in scientific literature. In these instances, the bear doing the killing is always an adult male, which would have the advantage over young bears, old bears, and even adult females.

In the paper with Ross, Stirling reports on three instances of what is most likely intraspecific killing and subsequent cannibalism by adult male polar bears. The instances were all observed on the sea ice in Svalbard in midsummer and early autumn. Each incident was photographed (see above). The victims in each case were killed by more than one bite to the head. This is an instantly lethal way to take down prey, and the way that polar bears would take down seals, their typical food source.

According to Stirling, the instances of cannibalism described in the paper, published in the journal Arctic, are different than the normal instances of intraspecies predation. The bears that did the killing appeared to be in good physical condition, not obviously thin which is typically the case in intraspecies killings. Stirling and Ross concluded that the behavioral and ecological factors present in the instances of killing they describe in their paper show that by late summer, when available ice and the number of seals to hunt are significantly reduced, young polar bears may become a source of prey for adult males to still hunt from the surface of the remaining sea ice. While this type of behavior may be relatively normal, Stirling says that as climate continues to warm and reduce sea ice the frequency of kills like this may increase.

I asked Stirling what we should take away from these photographs, and the instances of polar bear cannibalism, and this is what he said:

“Climate-driven concerns for polar bears are real. The bottom line is that polar bears need ice to hunt from and without that, most bears will not be able to survive. At present, it looks like the last ice will be in the area of the northern Canadian Arctic and in Greenland. Some relatively small, but unknown, number of bears may survive there for some time after they cannot continue in more southerly areas.”

So basically, cannibalism is a natural behavior for polar bears. It happens. But due to climate change and the changes that are occurring to sea ice, it is likely that cannibalism is going to get worse. Which leads me to think, do we really want a unique and charismatic species that many people are working to protect to be eating itself? It seems somewhat backwards to invest in conservation and then just watch the bears duke it out amongst themselves. I wish there was a solution I could offer but climate change is its own beast entirely. I will say that intraspecies cannibalism wasn’t something I had on my mind when thinking about conservation, but I’ll definitely remember it next time.

A Geek Roundup: The Best Science Posts From My Internship (Part II)

I am blogging over at Geekosystem for the summer, and while I’ve been writing about some pretty different things than what I would post about here (like the official religious hat of the Pastafarian movement) I’ve also written a few posts about some interesting science topics. So, here is another link round-up of the interesting science stuff I’ve been covering for Geekosystem, and as a bonus here’s a cute video of corgi’s (yes, this was a post too).

New Monkey Adenovirus Jumps Into Humans: This post is about a virus discovered in Titi Monkeys at California’s National Primate Research Center during a recent outbreak that killed several monkeys and infected a few humans. This is the first example of an adenovirus jumping into humans, and could have important impacts on viral gene therapy.

Parrot Parents Name Their Babies: Did you know that in the wild, parrots have “names” which are specific calls that their parents and other birds use to address them? I didn’t, but this shows a pretty sophisticated social life among these birds, in addition to having a potential impact on future language studies.

Rainbow Toad Rediscovered After 87 Years Missing: The title of this post pretty much says it all, but click the link, I promise you won’t be disappointed by how totally awesome this animal looks.

Stem Cells Grow Functional Mouse Teeth: This is the first time that researchers have grown the bone and enamel of a tooth strictly from stem cells and successfully implanted it into a mouse’s mouth. Kind of gross, but also a very cool application of stem cell technology.

Quantum Dots Make Self-Assembling Nanoantenna: This was a really cool technology development that combined knowledge of nanomaterials and DNA to make a super-powered antenna that is more efficient and can assemble itself.

Battle of the Bugs: California To Launch Moth Killing Wasp Campaign: This was a really fun post to write because it deals with the controversial issue of using one insect species to attack another. There were some good comments on this one, including one from a representative of the California agency in charge of the wasp killers, who worked with me to find a more accurate picture for the post. It was cool to have that kind of interaction come out of the comments.

New Printable Solar Cells Are Easy But Not Efficient: Imagine solar panels that you could completely bend and twist while still having them work. You could make a solar dress or solar wallpaper! If only they were actually efficient…

First Photos Of Fish Using Tools, But Do They Really? Doing this post all I could think about was how much my first grade science buddies over at Lincoln-Hubbard School would have loved to see the pictures of this fish using a rock to help it eat. I did a series of posts for them about how animals use tools, and this would have been a great addition.

Diamonds Are A Quantum Computer’s Best Friend: You should read this post just because it took me all day to teach myself the basics of quantum computing to put together a post that made sense. I bit off a little more than I could chew with this one, but with the help of Max (one of my editors) it came together.

Urine Recycling Experiment Will Be Conducted On Last Shuttle Mission: The title pretty much says it all, but if the idea of drinking pee doesn’t completely gross you out, there is some really interesting technology at work in this experiment.

NASA Takes Huge Hit In Proposed Congressional Budget: I try hard not to weigh in on politics, but how funding gets allotted for government agencies is something that I find very interesting and have written about before. Right now NASA stands to lose about $2 billion in funding and lose the James Webb Space Telescope, which is a pretty devastating blow.

Forget Arsenic Life, Now We Have Chlorine Life: Arsenic life was a huge controversy in the science community last year. In this post I give a run down of the problems with that study, and how a new chlorine life study shows much more promise.

Fossil Of Largest Wombat Ever Discovered: One of Australia’s great ancient mammals is the diprotodon a huge rhino-like animal. Researchers recently unearthed the fossil of the largest diprotodon ever found, and its the size of a small vehicle!

Massive Dust Storm Descends On Phoenix: I promise, you need to see this video. The footage of this dust storm is amazing, plus it is called a haboob and I will never get tired of saying that.

Dresden Laboratory Creates World Record Magnetic Field: World Records are world records and they are interesting just because, but this is actually important because the stronger magnetic field could be useful for a variety of scientific experiments.

Emotion Reading Technology May Soon Become Big Business: Say goodbye to awkward social encounters. Researchers are developing technology that can help you pick up on social cues and let you know when a conversation is going well, and when its time to abandon ship.

NASA Sues Astronaut For Selling Camera From Apollo 14: One of the astronauts that went to space with the Apollo 14 mission has tried to sell what he says is personal memorabilia, but NASA has intervened saying he never had the right to take the camera. This is becoming a pattern for NASA and it would seem like they either have a record keeping problem, or a theft problem.

The Fuel of the Future? Researchers Look To Aneutronic Fusion: I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that you probably don’t know what aneutronic fusion is. Don’t worry, I didn’t either but it seems like it could be a highly effective fuel to power longer/faster space flights.

Water Wrinkles On Fingers May Actually Have A Purpose: You are now dying to know why your fingers get so pruney when they get wet. Check out the post to find out why, its actually a pretty interesting evolutionary adaptation.

Tasmanian Devil Genome Sequenced: The Tasmanian Devil population has been ravaged by a cancer that can be spread by fighting/biting and it is nearing dangerously low population rates. The genome sequence could help researchers come up with a better plan to preserve the species by ensuring a higher rate of genetic diversity.

Whew, thats a lot of science, happy reading!

Nuclear Legacy: Chernobyl Turns 25

The worst nuclear disaster the world has ever known, began with a trial run of an experimental cooling protocol on April 26, 1986. A power surge occurred in reactor #4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, near the town of Pripyat in the Ukraine (then part of the USSR.) An emergency shut down was attempted, but the situation was already out of control. Another power surge – stronger than the first – ruptured the containment vessel through a series of explosions that launched radioactive fuel and core materials into the atmosphere. When the reactor’s graphite moderator was exposed to open air, it ignited in a fire that sent a plume of smoke, ripe with radioactive material into the atmosphere.

Map of Chernobyl’s radioactive fallout

The plume drifted over parts of the former Soviet Union and Europe releasing into the open more radioactive material than the atomic bomb dropped of Hiroshima during World War II. The most effected regions include Belarus, Ukraine and what is now Russia – though radioactive material was detected at elevated levels throughout Europe.

The disaster killed 31 people who either worked at the reactor or were part of the emergency response crew, but the number of people who have been killed as a result of subsequent radiation exposure vary from the World Health Organization’s estimated 4,000 to the Greenpeace estimate of 200,000 or more.

The Soviet Union tried hard to downplay the April 26th fire and explosion back in 1986, but two days later on April 28th workers at the Forsmark Nuclear Power Plant in Sweden 680 miles from Chernobyl detected radioactive particles on their clothes. Sweden’s search for the source of the radioactivity (after it was determined that there was no problem at their plant) led to the conclusion that a serious incident had occurred in the western part of the Soviet Union. Chernobyl become the center of world wide attention.

On the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, society is still dealing with the legacy of fear, misinformation, and health effects left by the destroyed power plant. Chernobyl was ranked as a level 7 disaster on the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES,) which is the highest possible ranking. The world is still reeling from March’s Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, the only other INES level 7 disaster in history. But Fuskushima is not Chernobyl. Fukushima has not caused the level of death and destruction as Chernobyl – and the plants were of completely different designs.

The nuclear reactors at Chernobyl were made based on a now defunct Soviet design, which had known cooling problems. The plant’s workers were testing a new cooling protocol because it was known that in the event of a power outage the system in place (back up generators, etc.) would not have been able to cool the reactors quickly enough. There has been much speculation about who is to blame for the Chernobyl incident – if it was the reactor design or if it was human error.

Chernobyl as it is today

The first reports out of Chernobyl blamed the workers – reporting that they didn’t have adequate training and experience, that they were operating the plant with key safety systems (like the Emergency Core Cooling System) turned off, and that they knowingly ignored regulations. However, over time the role of these accusations has been downplayed, while flaws in the design of the control rods (part of the cooling system) and the reactors ability to deal with the build up of steam has been blamed for the bulk of the incident.

The initial clean up of Chernobyl was done by “liquidators” who moved the majority of debris into the damaged reactor, which was covered in sand, lead and boric acid dropped from helicopters. A concrete enclosure was built around the damaged reactor – a task that exposed the construction workers to significant amounts of radiation.

In February I did a post on What We Don’t Know about Chernobyl – namely that the site of the damaged reactor has been without a proper containment vessel all these years. The concrete sarcophagus originally erected around the destroyed reactor is still in place, and there are cracks in it. The money was never raised to build a more permanent enclosure.

The Fukushima disaster has brought Chernobyl back into the headlines, and today on its 25th anniversary we have to stop and ask ourselves how our understanding of nuclear power has been influenced and shaped by that April day back in 1986. In the wake of a nuclear disaster many people question whether the science is really safe, but I think the question we should really be asking is whether the science, in human hands, is really safe. It isn’t an issue of nuclear power – it is an issue of what happens when people try to harness nuclear power.