Category Archives: Science & Environment

Scientific fiction is not about science or technology

Jonathon Logan

Science and Environment Editor

 

The greatest works of science fiction most often revolve around some far-flung, scientific advancement or technology brought to life only by the author’s imagination. Take, for example, the far-caster in Dan Simmons’ Hyperion or the space elevator in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars. Fans of science fiction like to get hung up on how faster-than-light communication was used in a sci-fi novel instead of the reality created by the author. Often overlooked are the coming-of-age narratives, the capacity of characters to adapt and the role of fear. Science fiction is not the genre that will inspire you to pursue a STEM degree; no, it is the genre that will equip you with the moral and mental resilience needed to navigate a global pandemic (the stuff of sci-fi).

Frank Herbert’s 1975 book, Dune, is perhaps the greatest work of science fiction ever. What made this sci-fi chief among others was Herbert’s willingness to intentionally suppress the role of technology in the world he had built. In fact, a massive revolt against the god of machine-logic lays the foundation for a central tenet of the entire saga: “Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind.” This resulted in a prohibition on human-like machines. Herbert then immerses the reader in a world of fear that is wholly free of scientific or technological influence — confronting the reader with the hard truths young adults have to face. In chapter one Herbert writes: “Fear is the mind-killer. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. When the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

Fear is pervasive. It is dominant in our world today. Sci-fi does not transport readers to an alternate reality where you can forget the fear. It does not relay what to do when one achieves their goals. No, science fiction creates the lens through which one views their world, it nurtures the capacity to adapt when news shatters your day: “We’ve decided to move forward with more qualified candidates,” “we will be fully remote for the remainder of the semester” and so on. The Social and Personality Psychology journal published an article in 2016 asserting that “connecting to story worlds involves a process of dual empathy.” Good science fiction recognizes this. Sci-fi is not the geeky escape where a hermit STEM major goes to plot how to become Dr. Doofenshmirtz. Sci-fi is the tech-free zone where everyone has found themselves contemplating their worst fears, reflecting on human relationships and coming of age.

Clouds are Nature’s Poetry

Melita Wiles

Contributing Writer

 

“Wow! Have you seen how blue the sky is today?” Most people talk about the beauty of the blue sky, but have you considered how interesting the sky is when it is full of clouds of different sizes and shapes? While the science behind why the sky is blue is fascinating, clouds are intriguing as well.        

So, what exactly are clouds? The scientific definition is a massive aerosol composed of liquid, ice or other particles suspended in the atmosphere. Basically, clouds are huge blobs of water droplets. The huge part is really enormous too. If you add up all the miniscule water particles in a medium cumulus cloud (the cotton ball kind you drew as a kid), altogether they equal the weight of about eighty elephants.

These gigantic formations have a life of their own. The life of a cumulus cloud can be described using the motion inside a lava lamp. While lava lamps consist of liquid and clouds consist of gases, it is the same general idea. A ploughed field that has been warmed up by the sun acts like the hot light bulb in the lamp. This field then warms up the air above it making the air expand and become less dense, so it can move up toward the cooler air (like the oil expanding in the lava lamp and floating upward). Then the air, with hidden moisture in it, moves away from the heated field and the cooler air descends and replaces it. In the lava lamp, the oil comes back down because it gets colder and denser.

You might be wondering why clouds are able to stay up in the sky and not sink like the oil in the lamp. Clouds are massive and heavy, but the water particles are so small and spread out that gravity is almost negligible. Additionally, clouds stay afloat because of a concept called latent heat. Latent heat occurs when water condenses from vapor into liquid droplets and gives off heat into the surrounding air. With droplets forming and latent heat being released, the surrounding air warms, so that the air expands and the droplets float upward.

As the warm air and moisture that rises from the field cools, some of the water vapor condenses back into visible droplets and forms a cloud! Heat has now been released. Therefore, the air becomes more buoyant and it floats upward, creating more clouds. As this process repeats, more droplets are formed, more heat is released and the cloud grows larger. When the lifetime of the cloud ends, the moisture will precipitate as rain.

Some clouds produce precipitation, and others do not. Given the multitude of cloud types — low level and high-level, liquid or ice, cumulus or stratus, etc. — each cloud looks different and will produce different types of weather. While clouds affect weather, they also influence climate change. The shape and number of cloud particles affect the amount of solar radiation reflected. Furthermore, changes in global temperature can change the location, extent and type of cloud, which in turn has a warming or cooling effect, known as climate change feedback. The field of clouds and climate is less advanced than climate and greenhouse gases, but connections exist between the two areas. For example, climate change feedback from clouds can either offset or amplify any changes due to greenhouse gas emissions.

Clouds are not only studied in a scientific manner, but these breathtaking formations are found in art and literature as well. In ancient Greek mythology, Zeus is the lord of the sky and the god of rain and the cloud-gatherer. Clouds can be seen in 16th-century mythological art, as Zeus had a slight obsession with transforming himself into a cloud. This can be seen through multiple paintings and images from that time. Clouds are also used in poetry and descriptive writing to add emotion and texture.

Clouds do a lot more in the world than just rain down on us. If you are interested in the science and beauty of clouds, be sure to check out the Cloud Appreciation Society (https://cloudappreciationsociety.org/) for further information and stunning photographs.

Citizen science empowers the UN Sustainable Development Goals

Jonathan Logan
S&E Editor

 

In 2015, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly approved the Agenda for Sustainable Development. Included within the Agenda are “17 Sustainable Development Goals” (SDGs); among them are No Poverty, Zero Hunger, Climate Action and Life Below Water. The 193 member states of the UN General Assembly hope to achieve these goals by 2030 and usher in the “Decade of Action” beginning this year. The SDGs certainly boast a glimpse of grandeur: “our shared vision to end poverty, rescue the planet and build a peaceful world.” However, the literature, both scholarly and journalistic, is rife with criticisms of the UN and its 2030 SDGs, which have seen little in the way of advancement since they were adopted in 2015. Thus, the SDGs have become distant, and an entire book could be devoted to examining the shortfalls of sustainable development, the UN and the SDGs.

In October 2019, an article published in Nature: Sustainability sought to reconnect the UN SDGs, before the beginning of the “Decade of Action,” with the global community through citizen science. Citizen science refers to the participation of civil society in scientific endeavors through observations or data analysis. The article, “Citizen Science and the UN Sustainable Development Goals,” identified the emergence of “non-traditional data streams” as part of this citizen science revolution. For centuries, scientific communities have relied on civil society to expand their capacity, and, in the process, boost scientific literacy through these non-traditional data streams.

There are entire global projects built on the idea of citizen science. The crowdsourced research website, Zooniverse, is perhaps the most complete archive of global citizen science projects as anyone with an internet connection can contribute to. Zooniverse allows scientists and researchers to gain valuable insight on large datasets they simply do not have time to tackle by crowdsourcing data analysis or the observational part of an experiment. This is not to say that the UN could upload their global problems to Zooniverse and watch the solution materialize.

The UN operates on a normative basis, meaning initiatives like the SDGs can only be achieved through mutually agreed upon standards of data collection, or “reporting mechanisms” (Zooniverse is not an official reporting mechanism). The life of the SDGs thus far has been dependent on traditional reporting mechanisms such as “national statistical offices, government ministries or non-governmental organizations.” The institutionalized nature of these reporting mechanisms makes data collection expensive, cumbersome and sometimes incomplete.

Take a national survey, for example: one can cost as much as $2 million and happen on an annual basis or over even longer time spans, and they are dependent on the willingness of people to fill out a form. These shortfalls in traditional reporting mechanisms lead to statistical gaps in SDG data. The global citizenry is not burdened by bureaucratic budget-making nor do they wait a year to report a problem or share a significant finding. In other words, citizen science minimizes statistical gaps. This is the potential many scholars hope to see the UN harness.

One of the most successful apps in the Google Play Store is an ocean plastic, or flotsam, tracking platform created by the Southeast Atlantic Marine Debris Initiative in partnership with National Geographic. The app, Marine Debris Tracker, allows users to report when and where they see litter. The idea is that if enough people track litter or ocean debris, a sort of global litter flow could be mapped out, allowing activists or scientists to target the issue more locally and respond in shorter amounts of time.

Coupling the force of an engaged, scientific citizenry with the big data revolution and the sudden ability to monitor the Life Below Water SDG, which aims to reduce the prevalence of flotsam and jetsam in order to improve the livelihoods of all people, becomes a quantifiable achievement. Platforms such as Marine Debris Tracker seek to give tangibility to the solutions our world desires. Citizen science-based, crowdsourced apps like these are non-traditional reporting mechanisms that make the SDGs seem less like floating, distant goals. Citizen science connects the issue to the people; it empowers them.

One of the important questions for the UN brought up by the use of citizen science is whether it could replace institutional data collection and reporting. In the short-term, it is unlikely. The Nature: Sustainability article noted that many citizen science projects in operation today do not have direct implications for the SDGs. Nevertheless, platforms such as Marine Debris Tracker certainly possess untold potential for acting as a connector between the SDGs and citizen science.

The link between the SDGs and citizen science is not a definitive, closed study. Instead, take this article as a call to action. The SDGs are infinitely complex due to the number of factors that could be used to indicate the progress made on any single SDG. Citizen science has even begun to generate potential new SDGs. Among these are air quality projects based in Antwerp, Belgium that have nearly 20,000 civilian participants. The project, called “Curious Noses,” has driven scientific and public policy debate in Europe while also addressing the issue of pollution. The question posed in the Nature article asks whether these projects could be used to “fill the gaps” in a hypothetical SDG centered around improving air quality all over the planet. Or perhaps they could lay the foundation for an entirely new goal in sustainable development.

Before delving into the world of criticism directed towards international initiatives and organizations, remember that there are avenues through which your everyday experiences will improve the effectiveness of well-intentioned goals. The purpose of citizen science is not to remind the non-PhD wielding person that science is best left to academics, but that scientific endeavors bring everyone along for the ride. 

Artificial intelligence in international competitions

Jonathan Logan
S&E Editor

 

Go, the board game, is perhaps the most famous and complex board game ever created. Nearly 2,500 years ago, Go was invented in China. It involves placing a stone (the pawn) at empty intersections created by a grid, and is played by two opponents — one with white stones and one with black stones. If the player who controls the white stones has a pawn surrounded by the other player’s black stones, the white stone is frozen. The winner is crowned by determining which player enclosed the most territory by freezing the most stones. 

The game is used symbolically in TV shows like “Counterpart” and in Rian Johnson’s film, “Knives Out.”  Go is also famous for this mind-bending statistic: there are 2.00 x 10170 possible moves. That is more moves than there are atoms in the observable universe.

Lee Sedol, a Go legend and 18-time world champion, squared off against a Go robot in 2016. This game redefined how players and enthusiasts approach the game of Go. Sedol lost to the robot — although, the term “robot” is a stretch. His opponent was AlphaGo, an artificial intelligence (AI) that, unlike robots that interact with their environment via sensors, used machine learning algorithms to annihilate Sedol 4-1. That same year, Sedol retired, saying that the “AI was invincible” and that “best in the world” no longer meant anything.

The creators of AlphaGo went on to build a newer version of the AI that beat Sedol. It was dubbed AlphaGo Zero. This souped-up version was allowed to play against its predecessor, AlphaGo. What happened in these AlphaGo vs. AlphaGo Zero games is hard to fathom and experts from the Go community describe the play style of Zero as “alien.” In an article published in The Atlantic, top-ranked players said that it was as if Zero had beaten you before you knew the game had begun.

The conversation surrounding the prevalence of AI in our society is too complex to truly examine, but the prevalence of AI in international competitions is increasing and provides a miniaturized glimpse into a world where AI does more than play Go. At this year’s International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO) — an Olympics for high school math whizzes — enthusiasts and participants are saying that this could be the last year an AI is not gunning for gold.

An open challenge initiated by Microsoft seeks to develop software, or eventually AI, that can win the IMO. The initiative, known as the IMO Grand Challenge, has already generated a potential computerized contestant for next year. In 2013 Microsoft developed software, known as Lean, which they have been updating for an appearance in the IMO next year. It currently assists mathematicians in proof-writing and can verify mathematical work.

However, Lean is not yet capable of that blinding insight needed to elucidate the secrets of an IMO problem. AI like AlphaGo follow decision trees until they arrive at the best solution for the problem in front of them. An open-ended math problem with an infinite number of ideas that could lead to a correct solution is much more difficult to program. It is like starting from the bottom of a decision tree where there are thousands of possibilities. AlphaGo starts from the top where one move creates a new number of moves as the decision tree unfurls. Microsoft hopes to design a version of Lean intelligent enough to essentially work the decision tree backward until the solution at the top of the tree is determined.

If Lean were to win a gold medal at the IMO, an international competition where one person represents an entire country, what is the purpose of terming it an “Olympiad?” Does the AI represent the home country of the corporation or institution that created it? These questions are reminiscent of the fears many science fiction mediums bring out in all of us. The fear that robots may “take your job” or the fear of our lives are being orchestrated from some control room — these are the premonitions international competitions should keep in mind as they permit artificial intelligence to participate in high-stakes tournaments.

Starlink upends Earth-based Astronomic Observations

Jonathan Logan

Science & Environment Editor

 

One of Elon Musk’s newest endeavors involves beaming high-speed internet to the entire world. The project, known as Starlink, requires SpaceX (Musk’s flagship company) to launch over 10,000 small satellites into Low Earth Orbit (LEO). The official Starlink website states that the project should “rapidly expand to near global coverage of the populated world by 2021.” While this is certainly not the most technically challenging project SpaceX has embarked on, it is one of the most financially risky and disruptive.

A CNBC: Markets article cited SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell in saying that the mega-constellation (as it has come to be known) will cost upwards of $10 billion. Financial analysts believe that, if Starlink is successful, “SpaceX’s valuation could reach as high as $175 billion.” The motivation behind Starlink is not necessarily to make the internet more equitable and accessible. On the contrary, Elon Musk has stated publicly that the global internet project will fund his quest to colonize Mars. Since 2018, when the first batch of 60 Starlinks were launched, astronomy and astrophysics have been totally disrupted. Astronomical observations made by ground-based telescopes have been capturing these ugly, bright streaks slashing across the sky. The small satellites reflect a lot of light – enough to be seen clearly with the naked eye; not to mention a powerful telescope in the Atacama Desert.

Initially, SpaceX responded well to the legitimate complaints from academics and the everyday stargazer, according to an article published in Scientific American by Emily Zhang — an astrophysics major at Columbia University. They prototyped and launched a satellite with an anti-reflective coating in early 2020. The satellite, dubbed “DarkSat,” reflected about half of all incident sunlight. Astronomers recognized the DarkSat as a step in the right direction, but the chains of DarkSats remain highly visible in exposures taken by Earth-based telescopes. Monthly launches have continued to send dozens of the Starlink satellites into LEO.

On the other hand, some scientists continue to politely nudge SpaceX in hopes that they will engineer a solution. This August, an assembly of scientists and satellite experts alike gathered at the virtual Satellite Constellation 1 (SATCON 1) workshop “to provide recommendations for both astronomers and satellite constellation operators (SpaceX) in order to minimize further disruptions.” SATCON 1 resulted in an official report detailing what many believed to be a growing corporate-academic divide. The report stated that the effect of Starlink on “the human experience of the night sky range from ‘negligible to extreme.’” While the typical stargazer might land on the “negligible” side of the spectrum, the scientific endeavors of astronomers and academics all across the globe will become very hard if SpaceX goes through with the launch of an additional 11,000 small satellites.

The future seems bleak for Earth-based observations even after the DarkSats were launched. Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Center for Astrophysics at Harvard University, believes that the DarkSat is the end of the road; that SpaceX’s ingenuity has been maximized and nothing further can be done. While he was impressed by the DarkSat, McDowell stated that if the mega-constellation did go operational with all 12,000 Starlink satellites, the impact on astronomical research would be irreversible, he communicated to Scientific American. These fears seem to be well-founded as Sir Richard Branson recently decided to join in the billionaire sat-bash, backing OneWeb to compete with Starlink. However, OneWeb bankrupted. It was then acquired by the British government who saw the merits in the program. The battle for LEO is three-dimensional: scientific, corporate and governmental.

Over the COVID-19 shutdown, SpaceX decided to go at the brightness issue one more time. They engineered a satellite that uses a black sunshade to mitigate reflection — essentially a satellite with SPF 10,000 sunscreen. They dubbed these satellites VisorSat and launched a batch early this summer to be tested by astronomers once observatories reopen. Additionally, some experts have suggested putting the satellites into lower orbits. This would decrease the angle between satellites and the Earth, reducing the time they spend in sunlight. However, this would also cause satellite orbits to decay faster, along with corporate patience. In the meantime, scientists are happy to see SpaceX making an effort to resolve the dilemma.

Wooster physics students find opportunities amidst uncertain summer

Jonathan Logan

Science & Environment Editor

 

The value of an internship is hard to overstate. For many undergraduate students, an internship represents the potential to spring into a good post-graduation job. Equally hard to overstate is the value of research here at The College of Wooster, where the students’ efforts culminate in the year-long Independent Study thesis. Thus, summer research positions, just like internships, have always been a premium — especially to students seeking admittance to graduate schools. Unfortunately, many internships and research opportunities were cancelled this past summer due to the novel Coronavirus. Yello, a talent-acquisition company, conducted a survey of almost 1,000 undergraduates. 35 percent of the respondents claimed that their internships or research programs had been cancelled because of COVID-19. However, students here at the College’s Physics Department persevered, finding opportunities in internships as far away as Germany or research positions as close to home as campus itself.

Close to home, Melita Wiles ’22, a physics major, worked with Professor of Physics Susan Lehman here on campus through the Sophomore Research Program. She studied the movement of bead piles as they collapse into an “avalanche.” Bead piles can be thought of as a system of granular materials interacting until one bead breaks the pile’s back and an avalanche, big or small, occurs. Wiles used software called Particle Image Velocimetry (PIVLab) to “measure the velocity over a given pile.” Using a graphical user interface (GUI) process, she was able to “analyze multiple avalanches at a time,” in addition to creating a mathematical process to resolve the distortion of the bead pile input images.

 

Throughout the summer, Wiles had to learn software applications such as MATLAB “on the fly.” She found this to be one of the most rewarding parts of the research experience as “[her] ability to learn new programs and troubleshoot on [her] own are very valuable and attractive to real-world prospects.”

Matt Klonowski ’21, a physics and chemistry double major, interned at General Atomics through the Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internships Program. Klonowski worked on the cutting edge of fusion energy research by analyzing turbulent behavior in plasmas using Python — a popular programming language. Plasma can be thought of as a soup of ions and electrons allowing electrical currents to flow (lightning is an example of plasma). Images of plasma taken at a Japanese laboratory were fed as input to Klonowski’s Python program. The results of his analysis then informed the overall fusion energy research processes at General Atomics.

Among the highlights of his experience was a series of talks hosted by Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL). These talks introduced Klonowski to the expansive field of plasma physics and fusion energy. Additionally, he attended a seminar at which “Sir Steven Cowley, a plasma physicist that was appointed a Knight Bachelor for his contribution towards the development of nuclear fusion” was a speaker. Klonowski stated that his “Wooster physics and chemistry education prepared [him] well for this internship because the labs emphasize an independent approach to answering questions.” On the flipside, the internship “helped solidify [his] critical thinking and independent approach to research” here at Wooster.

Dani Halbing ’22, a physics and philosophy double major, interned across the pond at Shaeffler Group. Shaeffler is an automotive and engineering company headquartered in Germany with branches all around the world — including one here in Wooster. Halbing did research on hydrogen fuel cells — the hopeful future of sustainable, clean energy in the automotive world. There are many complications with introducing these to the global market. One of the primary challenges to be overcome is in the bipolar plates that house the actual fuel cells. Hydrogen fuel cells “create a very corrosive environment,” Halbing said. His research focused on developing a surface coating for the bipolar plates that would “resist corrosion, but also maintain a high electrical conductivity.”

The coolest part of the research, Halbing said, was conducting the “compression electrical resistance test.” A constant current was run through the bipolar plates while a force was applied to the plates in steps of 100 Newtons up to 1000 Newtons. He found it “incredibly interesting to see the vast differences in electrical conductivity for coatings that varied in formulation by just a few micrometers.”

In these uncertain times it can be hard to come by opportunities such as internships and research positions. Yet, the opportunities are there. Wiles encourages students to “talk to professors! They love to share their research with students!” Wooster professors represent the leading edge of research in their respective fields. Klonowski advises his fellow students to “start looking early and apply to as many opportunities that interest [them].”  He also shares that “internships are a great way to better understand where your professional interests are, without actually committing to a real job.” Halbing advises undergraduate students to expand their horizons and try new things that they may not have much knowledge in. He says “surface coatings are almost entirely based in materials science, and while [his] educational background is in physics, a lot of materials science is based in chemistry.” So, armed with your Wooster education, go forth, explore and effect change.