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
attacks by big business lobbying are drawing science into a
dark era, so we picked our favourite research papers that got less
Tracking atmospheric particles: we could do
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
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
"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
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.
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
And finally...what Star Trek can tell us about
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.