Red Alert!

There are geologists who believe our planet would be better named Ocean rather than Earth. 71% is water, a fact that astronauts have visually appreciated. Life of all kinds no matter what we call our home, is critically dependent on the health of our oceans, lakes, and rivers. Oceans provide 50 to 80% of our oxygen via the plankton that dwell there according to NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)**  Rain can also be traced back to evaporated water from Earth. The inhabitants of many countries would not survive without fish.

Usually, we cannot see the damage to oceans, lakes, and rivers caused by climate change. The trash on beaches is disgusting, but can be picked up before it contaminates the ocean . However, those who follow the News have been alerted about the Red Tide of algae killing 15 tons of dead fish that recently washed up on Tampa Bay with more to come. This time the ocean has fought back. I can’t imagine the stench. This tragedy echoes 2018 when 20 tons of dead sea life washed ashore. Ancient sea turtles, manatees, dolphins, and more lost their lives. Humans living nearby suffer from respiratory illness. Businesses depending on tourism are suffering economically.

The main culprit is fertilizer that has washed into waterways and ultimately the ocean. In addition, the rises in temperature in air and water contribute to the growth of the red algae. The only potentially positive aspect of these disasters is their high visibility. Plankton are also dying off at a rate alarming to marine scientists, but most of us don’t notice. Plankton not only provide oxygen, they absorb carbon, and are at the bottom of the ocean’s food chain.

With heat waves on the west coast and severe flooding in Europe, I am heartened that more politicians are no longer ignoring the dangers of global warming, but I won’t celebrate until aggressive plans are in place to save our planet. Protestors point out that there is no planet B. I am also heartened that scientists and activists are working hard on solutions so much so that all that is needed now is the public will to get our government to act.

**I saw the head of NOAA appear on PBS’s Climate One hosted by Greg Dalton. She described appearing before a Congressional committee in charge of funding. When she mentioned the critical role of NOAA in tracking the weather, one committee member replied that if he wants to know about the weather, he just turns on TV. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I wonder how she was able to contain her poise in explaining to the unidentified gentleman where TV gets their weather information.

An easy way to combat climate change and other fascinating science news

* In general people avoid talking about politics, but it’s only recently that climate change has been considered a hot political potato. It may be in Congress, but studies show that 70% of Americans accept the reality of climate change, and discussion increases awareness among the general public. A Yale social psychologist says such discussion is massively important in increasing awareness, and in turn awareness is critical in getting preventive action. One can begin with talking about the need to keep our air and water free of pollution. Who can disagree with that? Then there’s the tendency to give our friends and some relatives credit for being truthful.

* Artificial intelligence is getting smarter.  Gizmodo taught itself how to solve Rubik’s cube without help from a human, and in fact seems to have discovered a most efficient way given the few number of moves. I am curious about what is meant by no help from a human. I’d like to see the starting directions.  I loved Rubik’s cube and used mathematics to find a solution. I never became a whiz kid. It took me too long to figure out where I wanted what, but it provided a wonderful example for teaching my math classes.

* In addition to the five senses: seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling, and tasting, some scientists call our awareness of particular body parts a sixth sense—not to be confused with extrasensory perception. At the end of my yoga program lying in samadhi pose I am told to relax my toes, my lower legs, on up to my face. There is no movement, only awareness of that body part. Now neuroscientists believe they’ve located the neurons responsible for that sixth sense by studying fruit flies. Coincidentally, a collection of six neurons act together.

*Einstein called something called quantum entanglement “spooky action at a distance.” It is a pair of particles that share experience and state so that what happens to one happens to the other no matter how far apart they are. Further the matching is instantaneous seemingly defying the speed of light as the upper limit if one particle were sending a message to the other. Spooky, indeed. Now scientists claim to have a picture of a pair of entangled particles. Click here.

Should Congress members take a basic science test?


Scientists are making astounding advances, advances that have significant consequences for the human race. They are the first to acknowledge that they are not the ones to determine policies related to the use of their discoveries. We the people are responsible by electing those of the people who will make responsible choices for the people. Those making the decisions need a basic understanding of the science involved. I listened to Dr. Dean Edell on radio as my daughter, Heather, produced it. He often touted the proposal that in order to become a member of Congress, one should pass a science test.

Climate Change:  That it exists is not a political issue. How we should prepare for the future is, and not all of our politicians are prepared to make good decisions. I watched an executive of NOAA (National Oceanic & Atmosphere Administration) speak on a panel about her experience testifying before Congress in order to prevent cuts to their agency. When she spoke of NOAA’s importance she mentioned their weather prediction service. Like a child saying chickens come from grocery stores, one unnamed Congress creature actually said, “If I want to know what the weather will be, I just turn on TV.”

Fires, hurricanes, floods, droughts are increasing not only in number but in their destructive capacities. Are we prepared to assume the enormous cost of reconstruction? Shouldn’t we be thinking of mitigation and prevention?

An NPR’s Science Friday guest speaker stated that a sea level rise of ten meters will affect 600 million people if they remain living where they are.

Some coastal cities are looking at building walls because they already experience flash floods from the ocean through residential neighborhoods.

Putting electricity underground is expensive, but I have to think not as expensive as repeated reconstruction of lines to say nothing of the impact on affected families.

Some efforts to reduce human’s carbon footprint may have done the opposite. Use of biofuel is one example. One must consider the total impact. In fact, there is likely nothing humans do without an impact. Early windmill design didn’t consider birds flying into them.

Because we haven’t done enough to reduce climate chaos, scientists are looking for ways to remove carbon from the atmosphere, but again there could be unintended consequences with science following the path of the woman who swallowed the fly, and then the spider to get the fly, and then the bird to get the spider and the cat to get the bird on ad infinitum.>

PS to this section. I’m tempted to add a logic test to Dr. Dean’s recommendation. Another congress creature brought a snowball to the Senate floor to “prove” the globe is not warming. I guess he’d also dispute this country has an obesity problem by pointing at a thin person.

Designer Jeans

 Designer Genes:  I doubt anyone objects to using DNA modification to deal with serious disease or disability, but if it’s done to an embryo the resultant human will pass on its altered genes. What if some unintended alteration is passed on?

Many scientists say that once gene editing is perfected, there is not a clear line between what is acceptable and what is not. The Chinese scientist who altered twin embryos to be resistant to HIV has been criticized as the procedure may not be safe and there are other means of prevention and cure.

I personally worry that if there is no policy about use of gene editing, greater inequality will result as parents begin to design their children for intelligence and beauty. These procedures are likely to be expensive.

Self Driving Cars and autopilot on planes: Not only has at least one death been attributed to a self-driving car proving they aren’t perfect , their programming must involve decisions of whom to avoid and who not to in difficult situations. Does the car manufacture make that decision? A recent airplane crash was attributed to a navigation system that went Frankenstein. The pilots lost the battle.

Scientists will do what scientists do, namely research to better understand the world and to improve life on earth. However, they understand that what they discover demands responsible use and also understand that they are not the ones who can inform but should not make final decisions.

In fact, it is the general public that needs basic science to understand the import of scientific discoveries.





Save the chocolate!

The Amazon rain forests are disappearing at an increasing rate and along with them the best exquisite-chocolate-producing cacao trees.

From August of 2015 through July of 2016, the  Amazon forest lost nearly 8,000 square kilometers of area to clear cutting, compared to a year earlier when 6,207 square kilometers were lost. That’s an area considerably larger than the state of Delaware. Delaware may be small, but like a 1000 piece puzzle covers a large picture, the annual loss amounts to ultimate devastaion..

The Amazon has long been dubbed the lungs of the planet due to its ability to absorb carbon dioxide and emit oxygen. Rainforests can also be characterized as the medicine cabinet of the world as they are filled with medicinal treasure both discovered and yet to be discovered. Quinine, novacain, and cortisone to name a familiar few. In fact, half of the top ten prescription drugs in the U.S. are of animal, plant, or microorganism origin. 70% of plant-based cancer drugs come from plants only found in rainforests. Many plants and animals—potential sources of vital medicine—have gone extinct. Only a small percent of the existing known plant and animal species have been thoroughly examined for their medicinal potential.

About a decade ago, the problem was highlighted in the news and measures were taken to stem the destruction. Evidently, we spanked our hands on the problem and turned to other issues. Without the spotlight, Cargill and other agri-companies are not sufficiently ensuring compliance with their stated policies of only buying products from agricultural lands. The Brazilian government has become lax about enforcing legislation to protect the forest by forgiving those who have engaged in the practice.

At the same time, Mark Christian is turning to producing premium chocolate he calls wild chocolate from rare cacao trees in the Amazon forest. He is not only hoping to promote the specialty chocolate as an industry there, but hoping that it will contain  the amount of clearcutting for other crops.

I confess to attempting to trick readers who may be weary of the plea to save rainforests and view people like me as tree huggers. We might not know if we could benefit from some undiscovered medical cure or how the air we breath is affected, but I hope that the love of chocolate in all of us  will help rally the world. Truffles, anyone?

If you want to do something, click here for a list of worthy organizations, which are fighting to save this natural resource.

Sources: Medicinal treasures of the rainforest 
Preserve rare cacao resources in the Amazon
Amazon deforestation increases when our planet can least afford it.
Deforestation in Brazil and Bolivia roars back  
Video photos taken by NASA 



Guess who’s into “in vitro fertilization”?

Follow up to the last blog:  Marine biologists at the California Academy of Science are studying the spawning of the little critters whose bodies create coral. In order to discover a method to save some of the world’s degraded and dying reefs, they are experimenting with in vitro fertilization to increase the number of coral polyps,. Rising ocean temperatures and acidification are killing coral reefs all over the world on a massive scale. The first symptom of trouble is bleaching, a condition indicating loss of the algae necessary for a reef to survive.

coral-567688_1280Healthy coral reefs are not just colorful sea gardens, nor are they cauliflower shaped rocks, but colonies of tiny animals from the same animal group as jellyfish. Since they spawn predictably only once a year and in great numbers, researchers can capture coral sperm and egg cells to grow the larvae in test tubes. Bart Shephard of the CA Academy of Science in San Francisco and his team have had success with reintroducing the coral polyps to a reef in Curacao. After thousands of test tube larvae matured, they were attached to small tiles and transplanted to the reef. Two years later the introduced coral was flourishing. The process was labor intensive, and they are working on reducing the labor to accomodate projects of larger scale.

Coral reefs are not only a thing of beauty, they are essential to life on earth. The hundreds of different hard corals within a reef provide habitat, shelter, and food in the form of algae contained in the living coral to over 4,000 species of fish and hundreds of other species, all of which sustain life further up the food chain. The unique attractiveness of healthy reefs contribute to local economies through tourism, providing millions of jobs and adding billions of dollars to the world economy.

The cost of protection is so much less than the cost of the potential loss. Recently 2,000 scientists attended a symposium of the International Society for Reef Studies and called for Australia to do more to protect its bleached national treasure, the Great Barrier Reef. It is unlikely in vitro fertilization is sufficiently cost effective to recover all of the planet’s reefs.

When there are days the news is so bad, I want to say, “Stop the planet, I want to get off,” I find it so hopeful to discover that scientific humankind is seeking ways of making up for humankind’s sin against nature. And scientists are often portrayed as cold and calculating. Go figure.

Adapted from an article from David Perlman in the San Francisco Chronicle, Monday June 27, 2016 and supplemented by information from