Tag Archives: climate change

Science denial is not limited to the political right

These days, climate is the most likely topic to bring up charges of having anti-science views and/or ‘right wing’ thinking but according to a Sept. 19, 2017 news item on phys.org ‘left wing’ thinkers can also reject science,

In the wake of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, many claims have been made that science denial, particularly as it relates to climate change, is primarily a problem of the political right.

But what happens when scientific conclusions challenge liberals’ attitudes on public policy issues, such as gun control, nuclear power or immigration?

A new study from social psychologists at the University of Illinois at Chicago [UIC] and published online in Social Psychological and Personality Science suggests people of all political backgrounds can be motivated to participate in science denial.

A Sept. 19, 2017 University of Illinois at Chicago news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, delves further,

UIC researchers Anthony Washburn, a graduate student in psychology, and Linda Skitka, professor of psychology, had participants indicate their political orientation, evaluate fabricated scientific results, and, based on the data, decide what the studies concluded.

Once they were informed of the correct interpretations of the data, participants were then asked to rate how much they agreed with, found knowledgeable, and trusted the researchers’ correct interpretation.

“Not only were both sides equally likely to seek out attitude confirming scientific conclusions, both were also willing to work harder and longer when doing so got them to a conclusion that fit with their existing attitudes,” says Washburn, the lead author of the study. “And when the correct interpretation of the results did not confirm participants’ attitudes, they were more likely to view the researchers involved with the study as less trustworthy, less knowledgeable, and disagreed with their conclusions more.”

These effects were constant no matter what issue was under consideration, which included six social issues — immigration, gun control, climate change, health care reform, nuclear power and same sex marriage — and one control issue — skin rash treatment.

Rather than strictly a conservative phenomenon, science denial may be a result of a more basic desire of people wanting to see the world in ways that fit with their personal preferences, political or otherwise, according to the researchers.

The results also shed light on science denial in public discourse, Skitka added.

“Before assuming that one group of people or another are anti-science because they disagree with one scientific conclusion, we should make an effort to consider different motivations that are likely at play, which might have nothing to do with science per se,” she said.

This research fits into a larger body of work where researchers are examining what we believe and how we use or dismiss science and fact to support our positions. Chris Mooney’s article “The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science” for the May/June 2011 issue of Mother Jones examines the issue although it is strongly weighted with examples of research into intransigent opinion associated with right wing politics (climate change, etc.).

Getting back to more recent work, here’s link to and a citation for the paper,

Science Denial Across the Political Divide; Liberals and Conservatives Are Similarly Motivated to Deny Attitude-Inconsistent Science by Anthony N. Washburn, Linda J. Skitka. Social Psychological and Personality Science DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/1948550617731500 First Published September 14, 2017

This paper is behind a paywall.

Julie Payette, Canada’s Governor General, takes on science deniers and bogus science at 2017 Canadian Science Policy Conference

On the first day of the 2017 Canadian Science Policy Conference (Nov. 1 -3, 2017 in Ottawa, Ontario), Governor General Julie Payette’s speech encouraged listeners to grapple with science deniers, fake news, and more (from a Nov. 2, 2017 article by Mia Rabson in the Huffington Post, Canada edition),

Payette was the keynote speaker at the ninth annual Canadian Science Policy Convention in Ottawa Wednesday night [Nov. 1, 2017] where she urged her friends and former colleagues to take responsibility to shut down the misinformation about everything from health and medicine to climate change and even horoscopes that has flourished with the explosion of digital media.

“Can you believe that still today in learned society, in houses of government, unfortunately, we’re still debating and still questioning whether humans have a role in the Earth warming up or whether even the Earth is warming up, period,” she asked, her voice incredulous.

She generated giggles and even some guffaws from the audience when she said too many people still believe “taking a sugar pill will cure cancer if you will it good enough and that your future and every single one of the people here’s personalities can be determined by looking at planets coming in front of invented constellations.”

Payette was trained as a computer engineer and later became an astronaut and licensed pilot and in 1999 was the first Canadian to board the International Space Station.

Mia Rabson in another Nov. 2, 2017 article (this time for 680news.com) presents responses to the speech from various interested parties,

According to popular Canadian astrologer Georgia Nicols, Canada’s Governor General should be doing what she can to “keep the peace” with loved ones today and avoid the “planetary vibe” that is urging people to engage in power struggles and disputes.

The advice, contained in Julie Payette’s Nov. 2 [2017] horoscope on Nicols’ website, might have come a day late, though Payette likely wouldn’t have listened to it anyway.

The Governor General made clear in a speech to scientists at an Ottawa convention Wednesday she has a very low opinion of the validity of horoscopes, people who believe in creationism or those who don’t believe in climate change.

Emmett Macfarlane, a political professor at the University of Waterloo said nothing stops a governor general from stating opinions and while there have been unwritten traditions against it, Payette’s most recent predecessors did not always hold their tongues.

Conservative political strategist Alise Mills said Payette went way over the line with her speech, which she characterized as not only political but “mean-spirited.”

“I definitely agree science is key but I think there is a better way to do that without making fun of other people,” Mills said.

There isn’t a lot of data on horoscope and astrology beliefs in Canada but a 2005 Gallup poll suggested around one in four Canadians believed in astrology.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau didn’t seem to have any issue with what Payette said, saying his government and Canadians understand the value of science.

Mills said Payette wasn’t just promoting science, she was mocking people with religious beliefs, and specifically, evangelical Christians who don’t believe evolutionary science.

Astrologer Nicols said she had “no wish to take on a woman who is as accomplished as Julie Payette,” whom she notes is a “feisty Libra with three planets in Scorpio.”

But she did suggest Payette would be better to stick to what she knows.

“Astrology is not the stuff of horoscopes in newspapers, albeit I do write them,” wrote Nicols in an e-mail. “It is actually a complex study based on mathematics. Not fairy dust falling from the stars.”

There is one thing I find a bit surprising, Payette doesn’t seem to have taken on the vaccination issue. In any event, it looks like the conference had an exciting start.

Desalination of sea water with a graphene sieve

The proposed use of graphene membranes for water purification and remediation isn’t new (I have a July 20, 2015 posting which covers some of this field of interest). However, there’s this April 3, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily announcing some new work on graphene and desalination at the University of Manchester,

Graphene-oxide membranes have attracted considerable attention as promising candidates for new filtration technologies. Now the much sought-after development of making membranes capable of sieving common salts has been achieved.

New research demonstrates the real-world potential of providing clean drinking water for millions of people who struggle to access adequate clean water sources.

The new findings from a group of scientists at The University of Manchester were published today in the journal Nature Nanotechnology. Previously graphene-oxide membranes have shown exciting potential for gas separation and water filtration.

An April 3, 2017 University of Manchester press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

Graphene-oxide membranes developed at the National Graphene Institute have already demonstrated the potential of filtering out small nanoparticles, organic molecules, and even large salts. Until now, however, they couldn’t be used for sieving common salts used in desalination technologies, which require even smaller sieves.

Previous research at The University of Manchester found that if immersed in water, graphene-oxide membranes become slightly swollen and smaller salts flow through the membrane along with water, but larger ions or molecules are blocked.

The Manchester-based group have now further developed these graphene membranes and found a strategy to avoid the swelling of the membrane when exposed to water. The pore size in the membrane can be precisely controlled which can sieve common salts out of salty water and make it safe to drink.

As the effects of climate change continue to reduce modern city’s water supplies, wealthy modern countries are also investing in desalination technologies. Following the severe floods in California major wealthy cities are also looking increasingly to alternative water solutions.

When the common salts are dissolved in water, they always form a ‘shell’ of water molecules around the salts molecules. This allows the tiny capillaries of the graphene-oxide membranes to block the salt from flowing along with the water. Water molecules are able to pass through the membrane barrier and flow anomalously fast which is ideal for application of these membranes for desalination.

Professor Rahul Nair, at The University of Manchester said: “Realisation of scalable membranes with uniform pore size down to atomic scale is a significant step forward and will open new possibilities for improving the efficiency of desalination technology.

“This is the first clear-cut experiment in this regime. We also demonstrate that there are realistic possibilities to scale up the described approach and mass produce graphene-based membranes with required sieve sizes.”

Mr. Jijo Abraham and Dr. Vasu Siddeswara Kalangi were the joint-lead authors on the research paper: “The developed membranes are not only useful for desalination, but the atomic scale tunability of the pore size also opens new opportunity to fabricate membranes with on-demand filtration capable of filtering out ions according to their sizes.” said Mr. Abraham.

By 2025 the UN expects that 14% of the world’s population will encounter water scarcity. This technology has the potential to revolutionise water filtration across the world, in particular in countries which cannot afford large scale desalination plants.

It is hoped that graphene-oxide membrane systems can be built on smaller scales making this technology accessible to countries which do not have the financial infrastructure to fund large plants without compromising the yield of fresh water produced.

Courtesy of the University of Manchester

I believe the previous image is an artist’s rendering of the graphene-oxide membrane trapping salt as water moves through it.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Tunable sieving of ions using graphene oxide membranes by Jijo Abraham, Kalangi S. Vasu, Christopher D. Williams, Kalon Gopinadhan, Yang Su, Christie T. Cherian, James Dix, Eric Prestat, Sarah J. Haigh, Irina V. Grigorieva, Paola Carbone, Andre K. Geim, & Rahul R. Nair. Nature Nanotechnology (2017) doi:10.1038/nnano.2017.21 Published online 03 April 2017

This paper is open access provided you sign up (or have already signed up) for a free registration with nature.com.

Curiosity may not kill the cat but, in science, it might be an antidote to partisanship

I haven’t stumbled across anything from the Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School in years so before moving onto their latest news, here’s more about the project,

The Cultural Cognition Project is a group of scholars interested in studying how cultural values shape public risk perceptions and related policy beliefs. Cultural cognition refers to the tendency of individuals to conform their beliefs about disputed matters of fact (e.g., whether global warming is a serious threat; whether the death penalty deters murder; whether gun control makes society more safe or less) to values that define their cultural identities.Project members are using the methods of various disciplines — including social psychology, anthropology, communications, and political science — to chart the impact of this phenomenon and to identify the mechanisms through which it operates. The Project also has an explicit normative objective: to identify processes of democratic decisionmaking by which society can resolve culturally grounded differences in belief in a manner that is both congenial to persons of diverse cultural outlooks and consistent with sound public policymaking.

It’s nice to catch up with some of the project’s latest work, from a Jan. 26, 2017 Yale University news release (also on EurekAlert),

Disputes over science-related policy issues such as climate change or fracking often seem as intractable as other politically charged debates. But in science, at least, simple curiosity might help bridge that partisan divide, according to new research.

In a study slated for publication in the journal Advances in Political Psychology, a Yale-led research team found that people who are curious about science are less polarized in their views on contentious issues than less-curious peers.

In an experiment, they found out why: Science-curious individuals are more willing to engage with surprising information that runs counter to their political predispositions.

“It’s a well-established finding that most people prefer to read or otherwise be exposed to information that fits rather than challenges their political preconceptions,” said research team leader Dan Kahan, Elizabeth K. Dollard Professor of Law and professor of psychology at Yale Law School. “This is called the echo-chamber effect.”

But science-curious individuals are more likely to venture out of that chamber, he said.

“When they are offered the choice to read news articles that support their views or challenge them on the basis of new evidence, science-curious individuals opt for the challenging information,” Kahan said. “For them, surprising pieces of evidence are bright shiny objects — they can’t help but grab at them.”

Kahan and other social scientists previously have shown that information based on scientific evidence can actually intensify — rather than moderate — political polarization on contentious topics such as gun control, climate change, fracking, or the safety of certain vaccines. The new study, which assessed science knowledge among subjects, reiterates the gaping divide separating how conservatives and liberals view science.

Republicans and Democrats with limited knowledge of science were equally likely to agree or disagree with the statement that “there is solid evidence that global warming is caused by human activity. However, the most science-literate conservatives were much more likely to disagree with the statement than less-knowledgeable peers. The most knowledgeable liberals almost universally agreed with the statement.

“Whatever measure of critical reasoning we used, we always observed this depressing pattern: The members of the public most able to make sense of scientific evidence are in fact the most polarized,” Kahan said.

But knowledge of science, and curiosity about science, are not the same thing, the study shows.

The team became interested in curiosity because of its ongoing collaborative research project to improve public engagement with science documentaries involving the Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School, the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, and Tangled Bank Studios at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

They noticed that the curious — those who sought out science stories for personal pleasure — not only were more interested in viewing science films on a variety of topics but also did not display political polarization associated with contentious science issues.

The new study found, for instance, that a much higher percentage of curious liberals and conservatives chose to read stories that ran counter to their political beliefs than did their non-curious peers.

“As their science curiosity goes up, the polarizing effects of higher science comprehension dissipate, and people move the same direction on contentious policies like climate change and fracking,” Kahan said.

It is unclear whether curiosity applied to other controversial issues can minimize the partisan rancor that infects other areas of society. But Kahan believes that the curious from both sides of the political and cultural divide should make good ambassadors to the more doctrinaire members of their own groups.

“Politically curious people are a resource who can promote enlightened self-government by sharing scientific information they are naturally inclined to learn and share,” he said.

Here’s my standard link to and citation for the paper,

Science Curiosity and Political Information Processing by Dan M. Kahan, Asheley R Landrum, Katie Carpenter, Laura Helft, and Kathleen Hall Jamieson. Political Psychology Volume 38, Issue Supplement S1 February 2017 Pages 179–199 DOI: 10.1111/pops.12396View First published: 26 January 2017

This paper is open and it can also be accessed here.

I last mentioned Kahan and The Cultural Cognition Project in an April 10, 2014 posting (scroll down about 45% of the way) about responsible science.

Café Scientifique (Vancouver, Canada) November 29, 2016 talk: Climate change and moving mountains

Vancouver (Canada) Café Scientifique’s next talk is at Yagger’s Downtown (433 W. Pender). From the November 19, 2016 notice received via email,

Our next café will happen on Tuesday November 29th, 7:30pm in the back room at Yagger’s Downtown (433 W Pender). Our speaker for the evening will be Dr. Michèle Koppes, from the Department of Geography at UBC. The title of her talk is:

Can climate change move mountains?

Climate change is causing more than warmer oceans and erratic weather. It can also change the shape of the planet. Glaciers are a fundamental link between climate and the tectonic and surface processes that create topography. Mountain ranges worldwide have undergone large-scale modification due the erosive action of ice, yet the mechanisms that control the timing of this modification and the rate by which ice erodes remain poorly understood. We find a wide range of erosion rates from individual ice masses over varying timescales, suggesting that modern erosion rates exceed long-term averages by two to three orders of magnitude. We also see that glaciers in Patagonia erode 1000 times faster than they do in Antarctica today. These modern rates are likely due to the dynamic acceleration of these ice masses as air and ocean temperatures warmed and they retreated over the past few decades. The repercussions of this erosion add to the already complex effects of climate change in polar and high mountain regions. Shrinking and accelerating glaciers destabilize slopes upstream, increasing the risk of landslides, and deposit more sediment in downstream basins, potentially impacting fisheries, dams and access to clean freshwater in mountain communities. And the dramatic increase in modern erosion rates suggest that glaciers in the Canadian Arctic, one of the most rapidly warming regions in the world, are on the brink of a major shift that will see them speeding up and eroding faster as temperatures warm above 0ºC.

Michele Koppes is an Assistant Professor in Geography at UBC, a Canada Research Chair Tier II in Landscapes of Climate Change, a faculty affiliate at IRES and a Senior TED Fellow. Her passion is forensic geomorphology: the art of reading landscapes to decipher the forces that shaped them.  Her particular expertise is in glaciers, and their impact in shaping mountains and polar regions at a variety of time scales, from last year to the last million years. Her research focus is two-fold: to determine the efficacy of glaciers as agents of erosion, and to determine the climatic and oceanic drivers of glaciations in high mountains and coastal settings. She has current field projects in high places all over the world, from BC to Patagonia, Alaska, the Himalayas, Greenland and Antarctica, where her team combines detailed field observations with numerical modeling of ice-ocean dynamics and glacier mass balance.

Have fun!

‘Robomussels’ for climate change

These ‘robomussels’ are not voting but they are being used to monitor mussel bed habitats according to an Oct. 17, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily,

Tiny robots have been helping researchers study how climate change affects biodiversity. Developed by Northeastern University scientist Brian Helmuth, the “robomussels” have the shape, size, and color of actual mussels, with miniature built-in sensors that track temperatures inside the mussel beds.

Caption: This is a robomussel, seen among living mussels and other sea creatures. Credit: Allison Matzelle

Caption: This is a robomussel, seen among living mussels and other sea creatures. Credit: Allison Matzelle

An Oct. 12, 2016 Northeastern University news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes a project some 20 years in the making,

For the past 18 years, every 10 to 15 minutes, Helmuth and a global research team of 48 scientists have used robomussels to track internal body temperature, which is determined by the temperature of the surrounding air or water, and the amount of solar radiation the devices absorb. They place the robots inside mussel beds in oceans around the globe and record temperatures. The researchers have built a database of nearly two decades worth of data enabling scientists to pinpoint areas of unusual warming, intervene to help curb damage to vital marine ecosystems, and develop strategies that could prevent extinction of certain species.

Housed at Northeastern’s Marine Science Center in Nahant, Massachusetts, this largest-ever database is not only a remarkable way to track the effects of climate change, the findings can also reveal emerging hotspots so policymakers and scientists can step in and relieve stressors such as erosion and water acidification before it’s too late.

“They look exactly like mussels but they have little green blinking lights in them,” says Helmuth. “You basically pluck out a mussel and then glue the device to the rock right inside the mussel bed. They enable us to link our field observations with the physiological impact of global climate change on these ecologically and economically important animals.”

For ecological forecasters such as Helmuth, mussels act as a barometer of climate change. That’s because they rely on external sources of heat such as air temperature and sun exposure for their body heat and thrive, or not, depending on those conditions. Using fieldwork along with mathematical and computational models, Helmuth forecasts the patterns of growth, reproduction, and survival of mussels in intertidal zones.

Over the years, he and his colleagues have found surprises: “Our expectations of where to look for the effects of climate change in nature are more complex than anticipated,” says Helmuth. For example, in an earlier paper in the journal Science, his team found that hotspots existed not only at the southern end of the species’ distribution, in this case, southern California; they also existed at sites up north, in Oregon and Washington state.

“These datasets tell us when and where to look for the effects of climate change,” he says. “Without them we could miss early warning signs of trouble.”

The robomussels’ near-continuous measurements serve as an early warning system. “If we start to see sites where the animals are regularly getting to temperatures that are right below what kills them, we know that any slight increase is likely to send them over the edge, and we can act,” says Helmuth.

It’s not only the mussels that may be pulled back from the brink. The advance notice could inform everything from maintaining the biodiversity of coastal systems to determining the best–and worst–places to locate mussel farms.

“Losing mussel beds is essentially like clearing a forest,” says Helmuth. “If they go, everything that’s living in them will go. They are a major food supply for many species, including lobsters and crabs. They also function as filters along near-shore waters, clearing huge amounts of particulates. So losing them can affect everything from the growth of species we care about because we want to eat them to water clarity to biodiversity of all the tiny animals that live on the insides of the beds.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Long-term, high frequency in situ measurements of intertidal mussel bed temperatures using biomimetic sensors by Brian Helmuth, Francis Choi, Gerardo Zardi.  Scientific Data 3, Article number: 160087 (2016) doi:10.1038/sdata.2016.87 Published online: 11 October 2016

This paper is open access.

Alberta’s Ingenuity Lab opens new facility in India and competes in the Carbon XPRIZE


The Ingenuity Lab in Alberta has made two recent announcements. The first one to catch my attention was a May 7, 2016 news item on Nanotechnology Now,

Ingenuity Lab is proud to announce the opening of the Ingenuity Lab Research Hub at Mahatma Gandhi University in Kottayam, Kerala India, to implement applied research and enable the translation of new 22nd century technologies. This new facility is the result of collaboration between the International and Inter University Centre for Nanoscience Nanotechnology (IIUCNN) and Ingenuity Lab to leverage what each participant does best.

Should the Nanotechnology Now news item not be available you can find the same information in a May 6, 2016 news item in The Canadian Business News Journal. Here’s the rest of the news item,

Ingenuity Lab, led by Dr. Carlo Montemagno, brings the best minds together to address global challenges and was in 2014 voted the Best Nanotechnology Research Organisation in 2014 by The New Economy. IIUCNN is led by Professor Sabu Thomas, whose vision it is to perform and coordinate academic and research activities in the frontier areas of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology by incorporating physical, chemical, biological and environmental aspects.

The two institutions are world-renowned for their work, and the new partnership should cover areas as diverse as catalysis, macromolecules, environmental chemistry, biological processes and health and wellness.

“The initial focus,” according to Ingenuity Lab’s Director Dr. Carlo Montemagno, “Will be on inexpensive point of care healthcare technologies and water availability for both agriculture and personal consumption.” However, in the future, he says, “We plan to expand the scope to include food safety and energy systems.”

Ingenuity Lab’s role is to focus on producing, adapting and supplying new materials to Ingenuity Lab India to focus on final device development and field-testing. The India team members know what system characteristics work best in developing economies, and will establish the figures of merit to make an appropriate solution. Alberta team members will then use this information to exercise its skills in advance materials and systems design to be crafted into its final form and field-tested.

The collaboration is somewhat unique in that it includes the bilateral exchange of students and researchers to facilitate the commercial translation of new and game changing technologies.

Dr. Babu Sebastian, Honourable Vice Chancellor of Mahatma Gandhi University, will declare the opening of the new facility in the presence of Dr. Montemagno, who will explain the vision of this research hub in association with his plenary lecture of ICM 2016.


A May 9, 2016 press release on Market Wired describes Ingenuity Lab’s latest venture into carbon ‘transformation’,

Alberta-based Ingenuity Lab has entered the Carbon XPRIZE under the name of Ingenuity Carbon Solutions. With competition registration taking place in March, Ingenuity Carbon Solutions plans to launch its latest carbon transformation technology and win the backing it so deserves on the world stage.

Ingenuity Lab is working to develop a technology that transforms CO2 emissions and changes the conversation on carbon and its consequences for the environment. By developing nano particles that have the capability to sequester CO2 from facility gas flue emissions, the technology can metabolize emissions into marketable by-products.

The Carbon XPRIZE this year seeks to inspire solutions to the issue of climate change by incentivizing the development of new and emerging CO2 conversation technologies. Described recently in a WEF [World Economic Forum] survey as the biggest potential threat to the economy in 2016, climate change has been targeted as a priority issue, and the XPRIZE has done a great deal to provide answers to the climate question.

Renowned for its role in bringing new and radical thought leaders into the public domain, the XPRIZE Board of Trustees include Elon Musk, James Cameron and Arianna Huffington and the prize never fails to attract the world’s brightest minds.

This year’s Carbon XPRIZE challenges participants including Ingenuity Lab and its Ingenuity Carbon Solutions team to reimagine the climate question by accelerating the development of technologies to convert CO2 into valuable products. Ingenuity Carbon Solutions and others will compete in a three-round competition for a total prize purse of $20m, with the winnings going towards the technology’s continued development.

I hope to hear more good news soon. Alberta could certainly do with some of that as it copes with Fort McMurray’s monstrous wildfire (more here in a NASA/ Goddard Space Flight Center May 9, 2016 news release on EurekAlert).

For anyone interesting Alberta’s ‘nano’ Ingenuity Lab, more can be found here.

Humans, computers, and a note of optimism

As an* antidote to my Jan. 4*, 2016 post titled: Nanotechnology and cybersecurity risks and if you’re looking to usher in 2016 on a hopeful note, this Dec. 31, 2015 Human Computation Institute news release on EurekAlert is very timely,

The combination of human and computer intelligence might be just what we need to solve the “wicked” problems of the world, such as climate change and geopolitical conflict, say researchers from the Human Computation Institute (HCI) and Cornell University.

In an article published in the journal Science, the authors present a new vision of human computation (the science of crowd-powered systems), which pushes beyond traditional limits, and takes on hard problems that until recently have remained out of reach.

Humans surpass machines at many things, ranging from simple pattern recognition to creative abstraction. With the help of computers, these cognitive abilities can be effectively combined into multidimensional collaborative networks that achieve what traditional problem-solving cannot.

Most of today’s human computation systems rely on sending bite-sized ‘micro-tasks’ to many individuals and then stitching together the results. For example, 165,000 volunteers in EyeWire have analyzed thousands of images online to help build the world’s most complete map of human retinal neurons.

This microtasking approach alone cannot address the tough challenges we face today, say the authors. A radically new approach is needed to solve “wicked problems” – those that involve many interacting systems that are constantly changing, and whose solutions have unforeseen consequences (e.g., corruption resulting from financial aid given in response to a natural disaster).

New human computation technologies can help. Recent techniques provide real-time access to crowd-based inputs, where individual contributions can be processed by a computer and sent to the next person for improvement or analysis of a different kind. This enables the construction of more flexible collaborative environments that can better address the most challenging issues.

This idea is already taking shape in several human computation projects, including YardMap.org, which was launched by the Cornell in 2012 to map global conservation efforts one parcel at a time.

“By sharing and observing practices in a map-based social network, people can begin to relate their individual efforts to the global conservation potential of living and working landscapes,” says Janis Dickinson, Professor and Director of Citizen Science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

YardMap allows participants to interact and build on each other’s work – something that crowdsourcing alone cannot achieve. The project serves as an important model for how such bottom-up, socially networked systems can bring about scalable changes how we manage residential landscapes.

HCI has recently set out to use crowd-power to accelerate Cornell-based Alzheimer’s disease research. WeCureAlz.com combines two successful microtasking systems into an interactive analytic pipeline that builds blood flow models of mouse brains. The stardust@home system, which was used to search for comet dust in one million images of aerogel, is being adapted to identify stalled blood vessels, which will then be pinpointed in the brain by a modified version of the EyeWire system.

“By enabling members of the general public to play some simple online game, we expect to reduce the time to treatment discovery from decades to just a few years”, says HCI director and lead author, Dr. Pietro Michelucci. “This gives an opportunity for anyone, including the tech-savvy generation of caregivers and early stage AD patients, to take the matter into their own hands.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Human Computation; The power of crowds by Pietro Michelucci, and Janis L. Dickinson. Science 1 January 2016: Vol. 351 no. 6268 pp. 32-33 DOI: 10.1126/science.aad6499

This paper is behind a paywall but the abstract is freely available,

Human computation, a term introduced by Luis von Ahn (1), refers to distributed systems that combine the strengths of humans and computers to accomplish tasks that neither can do alone (2). The seminal example is reCAPTCHA, a Web widget used by 100 million people a day when they transcribe distorted text into a box to prove they are human. This free cognitive labor provides users with access to Web content and keeps websites safe from spam attacks, while feeding into a massive, crowd-powered transcription engine that has digitized 13 million articles from The New York Times archives (3). But perhaps the best known example of human computation is Wikipedia. Despite initial concerns about accuracy (4), it has become the key resource for all kinds of basic information. Information science has begun to build on these early successes, demonstrating the potential to evolve human computation systems that can model and address wicked problems (those that defy traditional problem-solving methods) at the intersection of economic, environmental, and sociopolitical systems.

*’and’ changed to ‘an’ and ‘Jan. 3, 2016’ changed to ‘Jan. 4, 2016’ on Jan. 4, 2016 at 1543 PDT.

Ballooning with carbon nanotubes on behalf of climate science

What a gorgeous picture!

Scientific balloon launched from New Mexico in September 2013 carrying an experimental instrument designed to collect and measure the energy of light emitted by the Sun, with the help of NIST chips coated with carbon nanotubes. Credit: LASP

Scientific balloon launched from New Mexico in September 2013 carrying an experimental instrument designed to collect and measure the energy of light emitted by the Sun, with the help of NIST chips coated with carbon nanotubes.
Credit: LASP

US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) researchers made the carbon nanotube chips which help the instruments in the pictured balloon (above) to collect data about light. From the Oct. 24, 2013 news item on Nanowerk,,

A huge plastic balloon floated high in the skies over New Mexico on Sept. 29, 2013, carrying instruments to collect climate-related test data with the help of carbon nanotube chips made by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

The onboard instrument was an experimental spectrometer designed to collect and measure visible and infrared wavelengths of light ranging from 350 to 2,300 nanometers. Simpler, lighter and less expensive than conventional counterparts, the spectrometer was tested to determine how accurately it can measure the relative energy of light emitted by the Sun and subsequently reflected or scattered by the Earth and Moon.

The Oct. 22, 2013 NIST news release, which originated the news item, provides some additional detail (Note: Footnotes have been removed),

Researchers at NIST’s Boulder, Colo., campus made the spectrometer’s “slit,” a high-precision chip that selected the entering light. The device was made under a recent agreement between NIST and the University of Colorado Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP). The slit was then calibrated at NIST’s Gaithersburg, Md., headquarters.

For nearly a decade, NIST Boulder researchers have been using carbon nanotubes, the darkest material on Earth, to make coatings for laser power detectors. Nanotubes efficiently absorb nearly all light across a broad span of wavelengths, a useful feature for reducing internal scatter in the balloon imager. NIST also has facilities for, and expertise in, pairing nanotubes with micromachined silicon chips.

The Oct. 1, 2013 LASP (University of Colorado Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics) news release about the project offers information about the climate change data the researchers are hoping to collect and about the spectrometer being used for that purpose,

The instrument, funded by a $4.7 million NASA Earth Science Technology Office Instrument Incubator Program contract, is intended to acquire extremely accurate radiometric measurements of Earth relative to the incident sunlight. Over time, such measurements can tell scientists about changes in land-use, vegetation, urban landscape use, and atmospheric conditions on our planet. Such long-term radiometric measurements from the HyperSpectral Imager for Climate Science (HySICS) instrument can then help scientists identify the drivers of climate change.

Greg Kopp, HySICS Principal Investigator and CU-LASP research scientist, said, “HySICS allows us to acquire an accurate baseline of current Earth conditions so that we can monitor changes that are so relevant to society. This high altitude balloon flight was the first of two to demonstrate the instrument’s potential space capabilities needed to extend the measurements around the globe and over longer times.”

The instrument relies on precise measurements of the Sun for on-orbit calibrations. These solar measurements provide calibrations of the Earth measurements against this well-measured solar reference that other high accuracy space assets provide. Based on accurate solar calibrations, the HySICS radiometric measurements of the Earth can thus establish a long-term data record that is ten times more accurate than any current measurements.

For anyone interested in a more technical description of the device, the NIST news release has this,

For the balloon spectrometer, known as HySICS (HyperSpectral Imager for Climate Science), NIST made two types of custom chips that were stacked together in a sandwich. In the middle were aperture chips, coated with aluminum to block light transmission through the silicon, with small rectangular openings etched into the chip to allow light into the instrument.

A precision spectrometer must ensure that it only gathers light coming directly from its target, so the two outer layers of the sandwich were masking chips—larger openings etched at an angle and coated with tall, thin carbon nanotubes. These VANTAs (“vertically aligned nanotube arrays”) act as superefficient sponges to absorb scattered or stray light across the entire spectral range of the Sun.

While the balloon was in flight, the spectrometer scanned the slit across the Sun to measure solar irradiance. Spectral filters were calibrated by scanning the slit across the Moon and making measurements with and without filters in the beam path. The spectrometer also imaged light emitted from the Earth using the Sun as a reference light source.

For the information junkies amongst us, the Oct. 22, 2013 NIST news release offers links to more information about carbon nanotubes, etc. while the Oct. 1, 2013 LASP news release offers contact information for lead researcher, Greg Kopp.

Vancouver’s Café Scientifique March 27, 2012 meeting

At the Railway Club (579 Dunsmuir Street, Vancouver, BC, Canada) as usual, this month’s Café Scientifique features (from the March 2012 announcement),

Dr. Bruce Archibald, a paleontologist from Simon Fraser University. His café will be:

How are global patterns of biodiversity affected by climate? The view from a fossil fly’s eye.

Understanding the way that large-scale patterns of biodiversity are affected by climate has been among the greatest outstanding problems in ecology. Why are there more species in the tropics? The answer isn’t as simple as it might seem at first, as some possible controlling factors change together with latitude, and so their individual affects are difficult to evaluate. This Gordian knot might be cut, though, by looking in deep time, when global climates followed different patterns than today. So, comparing both modern and fossil communities in their environmental contexts allows a novel view of this problem. Why do the species compositions of communities change differently across mountainous landscapes in the tropics than in the Temperate Zones? An intriguing hypothesis proposed by Dan Janzen in 1967 can be examined by this system. Fossil insect communities from our regions may provide answers to understanding some basic ways of how life in the modern world is organized.

The café will take place on

Tuesday, March 27, 2012
7:30 pm
Railway Club
579 Dunsmuir Street

The event is held in a side room and not in the bar proper.