April 30, 2013, 5:19 pm
Above all else, Charles D. Keeling was fastidious with his data.
A couple of years ago, I found myself on assignment at Mauna Loa Observatory, the U.S. weather station perched just below the summit of a Hawaiian volcano. Spurred by Keeling, a longtime climate scientist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, this lab—still not much more than a bunch of prefab white containers sited below lava breaks—has measured the accretion of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere for 55 years. When Keeling began, those concentrations sat at 315 parts per million. That’s an idyllic level by today’s standards.
Indeed, as you may have heard, the CO2 monitors at Mauna Loa will soon reach—if temporarily—400 parts per million. They’ve already touched 400 ppm for at least an hour, and it’s likely that a daily average will top that level as well this month. (Stations in the A…
April 4, 2013, 2:13 pm
Prepare yourselves, dear readers: The United States of North America is coming.
Writing in the newest issue of Dædalus, two historians of science, Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, have taken on a quixotic task: imagining a future historian looking back at our time, in an effort to tease out how we failed to avert a climate-caused collapse. Or, as they put it, how it came to be that “a second Dark Age” fell “on Western civilization, in which denial and self-deception, rooted in an ideological fixation on ‘free’ markets, disabled the world’s powerful nations in the face of tragedy.” (The full version of the article is online here.)
Known for their 2010 book Merchants of Doubt, which examined the role of industry in casting doubts on the findings of scientists on cigarettes, climate change, and other topics, Oreskes, a professor at the University of California at San Diego, and…
April 1, 2013, 2:07 pm
The “West-End Trio,” one of two wolf packs remaining on Isle Royale.
The gray wolves of Michigan’s Isle Royale may soon go extinct. But before they do, they’re offering an important lesson for scientists: Have a little humility.
For more than 60 years, after their intrepid ancestors scrambled 14 miles across an ice bridge, packs of heavily inbred wolves have stalked the snow and evergreens of Isle Royale, a remote 850-square-mile archipelago in northwestern Lake Superior. For all that time, the wolves, normally known for their catholic prey selection, have feasted and famished off a single species, the yin to their predatory yang. They have hunted moose.
We know this because for as long as the wolves have stalked the moose, they have been tracked by a pack of Michigan scientists, in what has become a classic…
March 7, 2013, 2:21 pm
If there’s a point that may be lost in my recent take on synthetic biology, published this week in The Chronicle Review, it’s this: Once you get past the inflated rhetoric, synthetic biology still oozes a revolutionary vibe.
Last year, when I visited the lab of Jim Collins, one of the field’s founders, his team was coming off the creation of a plug-and-play “breadboarding” system for microbes. It’s an idea inspired by electrical engineering, where plastic “breadboards” serve as experimental bases for tweaking circuits without the permanence of soldering. Collins’s method allows much the same, but in bacteria.
There are plenty of tools around for inserting bits of DNA into bugs with some precision. But given the messiness of life, things rarely work out right the first time around. The team’s method makes pulling biological parts out of the DNA much easier, said Raffi B. Afeyan, an …
March 6, 2013, 3:48 pm
In any science, it’s hard to talk to the outside world without resorting to metaphor and analogy. That is especially true for the nascent field of synthetic biology, which promises to apply the ideas of engineering to life, as I detail this week in The Chronicle Review. At some level, really, synthetic biology is nothing but an extended metaphor.
Yet such metaphors, designed to convey complex science to the public, could be why the expectations of synthetic biology have gone so far beyond its capabilities. By “debiologizing” the work, the metaphors of computing and Lego bricks suggest an advanced understanding of the function, reliability, and purpose of living organisms that is often at odds with what’s known in biology. At least, that’s the case made by Eleonore Pauwels, a research scholar who has studied synthetic biology for the past few years at the Woodrow Wilson International…
February 26, 2013, 11:14 am
The Soufrière Hills eruption in Montserrat in 1995
Scientific outlines of global warming have remained relatively unchanged for decades. Climate scientists, however, armed with better satellites and long-term data, continue to refine their understanding of the jogs up and down that typify the planet’s surface temperature, which can remain flat for years at a time before rising again. There are many pieces to this puzzle, and for more than a decade, one mystery has been centered high in the sky, in the freezing stratosphere.
Given its height, many miles above sea level, the stratosphere is typically a barren place. Suspended above the weather, this dry atmospheric layer rarely houses anything more tangible than gases. Occasionally a vast volcanic eruption—like Mount Pinatubo, in 1991—might inject a load of…
February 20, 2013, 1:33 pm
Ancient rice paddies released significant amounts of methane into the atmosphere, but scientists disagree on whether they helped trigger a change in climate.
When did the Epoch of Man begin?
In recent years, it’s become common to hear that the earth has entered the Anthropocene, a new geological time dominated by humanity. The term, very much a meme, unifies a host of environmental concerns—climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution. It’s so influential that the body governing geological time is now studying, as I detailed last year, whether to consider the Anthropocene as a formal epoch—like the Pleistocene or Miocene—to the chagrin of some stratigraphers, the fastidious adherents to the discipline that judges such things.
If we are to enter a new epoch, though, geologists will have to decide when…