Science update from the AAAS: Phytoplankton, Vikings and Star Trek

  • 05 Mar 2012, 11:35
  • Bárbara Mendes-Jorge

What is the best way to tackle the numerous interconnected global problems that we face today, such as climate change and population growth? In the interests of science, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) believes that concrete steps must be taken in order to build a global knowledge society using information resources and electronic communications like social media.

This was the theme of the AAAS's annual scientific get-together in Vancouver last month, which brought together speakers came from a wide range of disciplines; psychology, history and anthropology as well as science.  

Most media coverage of the event focuses on fears that government interference and attacks by big business lobbying are drawing science into a dark era, so we picked our favourite research papers that got less exposure.

Tracking atmospheric particles: we could do better

Tracking greenhouse gases may be important when it comes to predicting climate change. Vicki Grassian, a chemist at the University of Iowa, says the role of particles is not yet well understood and has not been given enough attention.

Atmospheric particles can contribute directly to climate change  - by scattering sunlight - or indirectly  - by changing cloud properties. There is still a great deal of uncertainty about their influence on the climate because other factors such as particle size affect these processes.

"Modelers can overly simplify and field researchers can find the real world's complexity overwhelming." says Grassian.  She hopes future research continues to be designed with a view to track impact on climate, the environment, and human health.

Thankfully, phytoplankton are fighters

Phytoplankton are tiny algae-like micro-organisms that are of crucial importance to the planet. Like land plants, they photosynthesise  - consume carbon dioxide and emit oxygen - and provide a substantial amount of the earth's oxygen supply.

Although they usually only thrive in iron-abundant water, recent research concludes that they are able to adapt to places with low iron concentrations, provided that there is a reasonable amount of copper.

Other research on phytoplankton simulated the environment these organisms experience in Arctic waters. It found that the receding sea ice in the area actually boosts production of plankton as more light is able to penetrate the ocean. However, as the ice retreats, cloud cover increases, which slows the increase of light.

As phytoplankton form the base of the food chain, changes in their population definitely need to be monitored closely.

Fracking findings

New research shows no direct connection between groundwater contamination and the hydraulic fracturing of shale formations. Scientists found that problems often ascribed to fracking are related to other processes such as poor cement jobs or casing failures.

The authors also looked at the media coverage of hydraulic fracturing and found that the tone has been overwhelmingly negative. Articles on the topic also cite few scientific studies on the effect of fracking.

What the Vikings did for us

Scientists studying archaeological remains of ancient Norse societies have been able to analyse how well they responded to sociocultural changes amid climate change - and say that we have much to learn from them. In the 15th century, Icelandic societies kept their options open, embraced economic changes and flourished. However, the maintenance of traditional trade by the increasingly specialised Greenland community led to its downfall.

And finally...what Star Trek can tell us about physics

Professor Lawrence Krauss of the Arizona State University has written a book aiming to engage lay audiences in advanced physics concepts by using features from well-loved science fiction franchise Star Trek.

He distinguishes between theoretically possible Star Trek phenomena (such as wormholes) and those whose feasibility has not yet been determined by physicists (e.g time travel). "A lot of people are interested in science, but they don't know they are interested in science, and this was a great way to get them started", says Krauss.

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