Category Archives: science news

Wild birds with human speech

In news from Australia, it appears that wild parrots are learning human speech- from other parrots.

Baby parrots learn their vocalizations from adult parrots. When an escaped (or intentionally released) pet parrot joins up with a wild flock, that parrot then teaches young birds the words it’s learned from humans.

Apparently, this phenomenon is a bit disturbing to Sydney residents, who are being serenaded by cries of “Hello there!”, and “What’s happening?”

I’m amused by the final quote in this Courier Mail article:

“I just hope a pet bird that’s been taught dirty words doesn’t join a flock because we don’t want to hear that kind of thing going around the back gardens.”

(h/t Birdchick)

Attempt to use turkey vultures as flying police dogs fails

Apparently, German police have been attempting to train turkey vultures (imported from North America) to detect bodies while flying. The idea actually seems reasonable in principle- turkey vultures have excellent senses of smell, and could detect the scent of corpses from far away. They’re also closely related to hawks and falcons- two groups of birds that have been trained to be handled by people and use for hunting for centuries.

The problem here seems to be that the first bird the German police have been training is both lazy and shy. From a BBC report:

But according to Spiegel: “Sherlock’s success has been limited.

“While he can locate a stinking burial shroud, which the police gave the bird park to use for training purposes and which is clearly marked with a yellow plastic cup, Sherlock doesn’t approach the shroud by air.

“He prefers to travel by foot.”

Furthermore, the bird is yet to perform outside the familiar confines of the zoo.

“The bird is naturally anxious, and he would hide in the woods or bolt,” according to his trainer.

I don’t know if they’re going to try to train another vulture, but it sounds like they’re pretty disappointed by the first vulture’s failure. Oh well.

Story via Birdchick.

First American Ice Age mammoth carving discovered in Florida

A recent fossil find in Florida seems to show the first- and actually only- Ice Age carving from the Americas depicting a mammoth (or a mastodon, a related type of Ice Age elephant). While many Ice Age carvings of mammoths and mastodons have been found in Europe and Africa, until this carving was found, no one had ever found one in the Americas.

The carving, on a bone that’s probably actually from a mammoth or mastodon, was discovered by a professional fossil collector at a site near Vero Beach, Florida. While this site is well-known as containing fossils of many Ice Age animals, no one had ever found anything like this before. Mammoths and mastodons went extinct in the Americas by about 13,000 years ago. So, assuming the artist actually encountered one of these animals (and given the type of bone the carving is on, that seems like a good assumption), this carving has to be at least that old.

Mammoth or mastodon carving from Vero Beach. (Image: Smithsonian Institution)

This discovery was actually made in 2009, but the question then was: Is it genuine? As this would be the first find of its type, the paleontologists at the University of Florida, Florida Museum of Natural History, and Smithsonian Institution who were evaluating it would need to provide substantial evidence to prove this.

In an upcoming paper in the Journal of Archaeological Science, the researchers lay out the results of several tests, and come to the conclusion that the carving probably is genuine. If so, this is quite an important find.

Close-up of the carving. (Image: Smithsonian Institution)

If you get beyond the shallow and superficial image of Florida as a theme-park playground, this state actually has some depth- including quite a few important fossil and archaeological sites.

Fore more information on this discovery, go here. Here’s the reference to the upcoming paper, which is available online if you have institutional access (otherwise, it will cost you $30): Purdy, B.A., Jones, K.S., Mecholsky, J.J., Bourne, G., Hulbert, R.C., MacFadden, B.J., Church, K.L., Warren, M.W., Jorstad, T.F., Stanford, D.J., Wachowiak, M.J., Speakman, R.J. Earliest Art in the Americas: Incised Image of a Proboscidean on a Mineralized Extinct Animal Bone from Vero Beach, Florida, Journal of Archaeological Science (2011), doi: 10.1016/ j.jas.2011.05.022

Time-lapse Hawaii lava lake video

This cool new infrared video shows the draining and refilling of the lava lake in Pu`u `Ō`ō. Pu`u `Ō`ō is one of the craters on Kīlauea Volcano, and it’s been active for over two decades.Here’s what the crater looks like in daylight:

Image by USGS.

This time-lapse video shows the activity in the lava lake over the past two months.


For more info on Pu`u `Ō`ō, go to the HVO website. The USGS has quite a few photos and videos here.

Science that saves lives: the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory

There’s an interesting article in the most recent edition of Physics Today about the founding of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory and Thomas Jaggar, its first geologist.

Wiew across Kilauea Caldera, 1997. Halema'uma'u is the crater on the left. HVO is probably the tiny white specks on the crater rim at the upper center of the photo.(J. Kauahikaua/USGS)

The Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO) was founded in 1912 for the purpose of studying Hawaii’s active volcanoes. Located right on the edge of Kīlauea Caldera, HVO has contributed a huge amount to our understanding of volcanoes- both how they function and how to predict their activity. The science of vulcanology has saved hundreds of thousands or even millions of lives worldwide in the last century, and many research techniques have been tested and refined at HVO.

Lava fountain from Kamoamoa eruption, Kilauea: 8 March, 2011 (USGS)

According to the Physics Today article, by John Dvorak, Jaggar was largely inspired to study volcanoes after the 1902 volcanic explosion on the Caribbean island of Martinique, which killed tens of thousands of people in minutes. After working in Italy and Alaska, Jaggar was eventually lured as a tourist to the then-Territory of Hawaii to see the relatively non-explosive Kīlauea Volcano.

At that time, Halemaʻumaʻu crater was much more active than it is today, its bottom covered by a massive lava lake:

The crater was a quarter mile in diameter, with steep inner walls that made descent impossible. At the bottom of the crater, 200 feet below the rim, was a gray metal-like surface made up of large, irregular slabs of solidified lava. The slabs, separated by lightning-like cherry-red lines of molten rock, were in constant motion. Occasionally two slabs would collide, one plunging beneath the other, and send a jet of molten material into the air. The disturbance would send waves of orange-red molten material rolling across the entire surface of the lake. After a few minutes, the lake would calm, the surface would cool, and the slabs would reform. It was a stupendous sight that visitors would eagerly describe to friends and family when they returned home. Jaggar’s description, however, was more poignant than most—for him it was “as if everything within me converged.”

See here for a video of the much smaller currently active vent in Halemaʻumaʻu. Then imagine that view, only about 25 times larger, for a sense of what it looked like at the time…

Lava lake at Kilauea Iki in 1954: about 1/4 the size of the historical Halema'uma'u lava lake. (USGS)

While the article suggests that the experience of Halemaʻumaʻu was a life-changing epiphany for Jaggar, his road to founding HVO was certainly not smooth (euphemistic “domestic infelicities,” anyone?) But Jaggar did persevere, and became the first director of HVO.

Halema'uma'u at night, January 2009 (Mila Zinkova).

Today, HVO has quite an active online presence. General information about the volcanoes it monitors is here.  There are several Kīlauea webcams here of active eruption sites- daytime offers the best views, but the glow from lava is often visible at night. And there are archived photos and videos here. It’s an interesting site to check out, and provides an invaluable service to the public.

Creationism bill being discussed in Florida Senate

Every year around the US, creationists try to pass bills in state Legislatures either limiting discussion of evolution in classrooms or promoting a strategy called “teaching the controversy.” The latter approach essentially requires science teachers to teach students about both the scientific evidence for evolution and religiously-based philosophy that claims that evolution does not exist (or, alternatively, that some aspects of evolution have occurred, but not others).

Evolution is a fact, backed up by copious amounts of evidence. Natural selection, the modern theory describing how evolution happens, is probably about as well-supported as other scientific theories you may have heard about, such as the theory of gravity or cell theory. Some details of the theory of natural selection are currently being fleshed-out by scientists- a normal and healthy part of the scientific process. There is no debate, however, that natural selection is the best explanation we have today to explain the evidence for evolution that we see all around us. Philosophy and religion can offer no better, evidence-based, explanation of how evolution occurs.

This year, Florida Senate Bill 1854 would require “a thorough presentation and critical analysis of the scientific theory of evolution.” Sounds reasonable, right? Well, Florida State Science standards already require critical discussion in the science classroom. It turns out that the sponsor of this bill, Senator Stephen Wise, sponsored a bill in 2009 that advocated a “teach the controversy” approach to evolution. That bill failed, so he’s apparently trying to sneak religion into science classrooms again this year.

What does Sen. Wise suggest is a good “critical” alternative to evolution? He won’t say. In interviews by reporters, he calls it “non-evolution” or a “theory of whatever.” (In 2009, he called for teaching “intelligent design,” a Christianity-based philosophy which has legally been ruled religion, not science.) If this bill passes, Florida will be opened up to lawsuits similar to those that have cost other states quite a bit of money. It will also presumably have a chilling effect on the state’s efforts to attract high-tech businesses, such as medical research. Perhaps most importantly, it will teach our students something that just isn’t true. Evolution has occurred, and is occurring, and natural selection is the best explanation we have based on the evidence we have.

Floridians! If the prospect of poor science education, revenue-draining lawsuits, and general philosophical confusion bothers you, then you can sign this petition! One useful feature is that this petition sends an e-mail to your state legislatures when you sign, which helps make a greater impact. Non-Floridians can sign too, but the signatures of FL residents will have greater impact. I also urge you to add comments, as well as just signing. And, pass this on!

Announcement: upcoming UCF colloquium about Fukushima

For my Orlando-area readers, this might be of interest.

The UCF Physics Dept. colloquium this week will be about the Fukushima reactor accident and biological effects of nuclear radiation in general. This talk is open to the public*: Friday 3/1 @ 4:30 pm in Physical Science, Room 161.

Details from the department’s announcement follow:

“A Radiologic Physics Briefing on the Fukushima Daiichi Reactor Accident” by Dr. Thomas Wagner, MD Anderson Cancer Center, Orlando.

The March 11, 2011 earthquake off the coast of Japan and the resultant tsunami caused tremendous death and damage. As a result of these events, several nuclear power reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station suffered damage and release of radioactivity to the environment, which is still not completely contained.

This presentation includes a review of pertinent fundamental radiological physics, an overview of biological effects of ionizing radiation, nuclear power reactor design, operation, and emergency operations, and a comparison of the Fukushima Daiichi accident to the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl reactor accidents. Following the presentation, attendees should have a clearer understanding of the theory and practical operation of nuclear power plants, of the biological effects of ionizing radiation exposure, and prevention and mitigation of nuclear power plant accidents.

* FYI: I should add that, since this is a department talk and not a public presentation, that there might be a high level of technical detail.

Putting the Fukushima radiation into context

One of the more prominent science-related news topics lately has been the radiation emitted from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Coverage of this issue has been mixed in the press, with some stories providing an accurate context for the radiation amounts being reported, and other stories providing lurid and sensationalist uncontextualized commentary. For a roundup of the latter, see the “Journalist Wall of Shame” on the JPQuake Wiki (they also have a “Good Journalism” space).

Ionizing radiation is scary; it’s something we don’t generally think about on a day-to-day basis, it’s invisible, and it can harm us in unpredictable and deeply personal ways. I’m specifying ionizing radiation here because it’s this type of radiation- mainly gamma rays and x-rays- that can damage cells; there’s an entire range of radiation that’s non-ionizing and not harmful in this way- heat, visible light, etc. This may seem a bit pedantic, but the more mysterious and rarefied “radiation” seems, the more potentially troubling it becomes. Once people realize that they interact with many types of radiation constantly, the word “radiation” becomes a little less intimidating. Hopefully, that helps us put the dangers of ionizing radiation into context with a little less fear of the unknown complicating our understanding.

Xkcd radiation dose chart

At any rate, one of the things that makes ionizing radiation, like that emitted from  the Fukushima plant, hard to put into context is our lack of day-to-day experience with it. Reporters commonly compare  radiation exposure levels to numbers of chest x-rays, or public exposure of people after the Chernobyl disaster. But it’s still hard to put those doses of radiation into context. The graphic on the right, from the Xkcd webcomic folks, does a really good job of putting these numbers into a visual context (click on the thumbnail to go to and a full-size version).

I like this graphic for a number of reasons. First, it’s generally easier to compare a wide range of numbers visually, rather than numerically. Second, the author compares ionizing radiation to everyday non-ionizing radiation, which provides us with familiar context. He also compares the Fukushima event to the disasters at Three-Mile Island and Chernobyl, which lets us make our own comparisons between the three events. Fourth, he gives us references and links to his sources. He also calls attention to uncertainty- e.g., in places near the Fukushima plant where measured levels of radiation are fluctuating.

So, an interesting example of informal science communication. Check it out!

Once More, With Feeling: a Valentine’s Day Encounter in Space

In 2005, NASA’s Deep Impact spacecraft (named before the 1998 movie) visited comet Tempel 1 for a peek at what it was made out of. When the two made their celestial rendezvous, the spacecraft fired a projectile into the comet, sending up a huge cloud of dust and ice and revealing what was happening beneath the comet’s surface. Their encounter was like two ships passing in the night: Deep Impact went on to visit another comet before running out of fuel, and Tempel 1 continued in its lonely journey around the sun.

How much impact did Deep Impact's visit really have on Tempel 1? (Image: NASA)

Tonight, Tempel 1’s long, lonely journey will be livened up with another date with a NASA spacecraft- just in time for Valentine’s Day! This time, the spacecraft is the much more poetically named Stardust, an explorer which has visited several other comets and even sent comet samples back to Earth.

Will Stardust and Tempel 1 enjoy their brief encounter? (Image: NASA/JPL)

Stardust’s meeting with Tempel 1 will be much less physical than the hurried Deep Impact bump. Stardust and Tempel 1 will gracefully pass each other by, while the spacecraft takes photos of Tempel 1’s surface. How has Tempel 1 aged in the past six years? Does it remember Deep Impact at all, or has its celestial slingshot past the sun erased any traces of their brief encounter so long ago? Hopefully, tonight’s Stardust meeting will answer some of these questions.

Oh, and like any dating show on reality TV (“Date with a Comet”, anyone?) their encounter will be televised! Check out NASA TV at 11:30 pm EST tonight for the down and dirty. Don’t expect a funky soundtrack or edited-in catfight between Deep Impact or Stardust, though- this footage will be strictly uncut and unedited.