Category Archives: Science & Environment

The Science Byte 2/11/22

(Kayla Bertholf and Melita Wiles, S&E Co-Editors)


The Omicron variant has started to die down nationwide from its surge a couple months ago, but we still need to remain vigilant. Many people have thought that since Omicron is less severe, it would be easiest to just get the variant to get it over with. Experts recommend against this. Here are a couple reasons why you should not purposely get it to ‘get it over with’:
1.) You could get long COVID-19. Losing your sense of smell and your sense of taste is not worth it, and around 20% of cases lose their taste and smell for longer than six months.

2.) You will overburden the health care system. Over last weekend, over 5,000 hospitals reported “critical staff shortage.” That number has never been larger, even during earlier times in the pandemic.

3.) You will be spreading the disease to children. Only half of children are fully vaccinated and about 20% of younger children have received their first dose.

4.) It is not a “bad cold.” You will have a fever, body aches, swollen lymph nodes, sore throat and congestion, leaving you debilitated for days. Any form of COVID-19 is a life-threatening disease.

5.) Do not mess with Mother Nature. Back in the day, people used to
host chicken-pox parties, where they would expose their healthy children to infected children. Many children died from the infection.

Overall, it is important to keep yourself and your community safe and healthy. Do things that can benefit others by wearing a mask, social-distancing and staying home when sick. It is still a deadly disease and you could possibly die or pass it on to someone you love.

Winter Storms 101: Jet Streams and the Coriolis Effect

Melita Wiles

S&E Co-Editor


As winter storm Landon began Wednesday night, The College of Wooster made the decision to give professors the option to go remote or cancel classes on Thursday, Feb. 3. Other facilities, such as the Scot Center and all academic buildings were closed for the day. The storm started with rain and then temperatures dropped, leading the rain covering the ground to freeze. Then the snow came, and multiple inches of snow covered the ice, making it dangerous to try to walk, run or drive anywhere for hours. The snow continued, barely allowing you to see 100 yards in front of you—if you were brave enough to go out in the blustery conditions. This led to the College making the decision to, again, partially close the campus down and give professors the option of remote learning on Friday, giving students a faux four-day weekend. Fast forward to a couple days later, and the ice still resides on most sidewalks.

Wooster was not the only place hit by this storm. It started in New Mexico and traveled all the way to New England, where there was more than a foot of snow in places like New York and Massachusetts. Multiple states set up overnight warming centers for people in need. Drivers in Texas found themselves at a standstill in freezing temperatures overnight because of an eighteen-wheeler that jackknifed about an hour outside of San Antonio. More than 3,900 flights were canceled on Friday all over the country. At least 150 million Americans were under ice or winter weather advisories and hundreds of thousands were without power.  

Winter storms originate from the clash of two air masses of different temperatures and moisture levels. When cold, dry air moves from Canada and meets warm, moist air from the South, specifically the Gulf of Mexico, a front is created. If the cold air advances and eliminates the warm air, it is called a cold front, and vice versa for a warm front. If neither air mass advances, it is called a stationary front. Then, a source of moisture is needed to create clouds, which leads to the formation of precipitation. The precipitation we had was snow, which comes down in the form of snowflakes. These ice crystals will melt into the form of wet or freezing rain which is what Wooster experienced for a bit. This was because the air near the ground was above freezing, which led to the freezing rain. Then temperatures dropped again, resulting in a couple more inches of snow.

As said earlier, this winter storm started in New Mexico and traveled east, towards New England. Most storms experienced in the States move from west to east, due to the jet stream. The jet stream is a narrow band of speedy, flowing air current that moves around the entire earth. These jet streams carry weather systems. The rotation of the Earth also affects weather through the Coriolis Effect. Named after a French mathematician, this effect refers to the curved path that objects moving on Earth’s surface appear to follow because of the spinning of the planet. As the Earth turns, points near the equator are moving faster than places near the poles. This is because the Earth is a sphere-like shape, and the circumference is larger near the equator compared to the circumference near the poles. These points have more angular momentum (This is why rockets are launched in places near the equator, because then their initial speed can be greater, without consuming too much fuel).


Returning to the Coriolis Effect, think of the wind near the equator. The wind starts at a certain speed due to Earth’s rotation. As the wind travels towards the North Pole, it moves over parts of the Earth that are rotating more slowly. The traveling wind retains its angular momentum and keeps moving west to east, overtaking the part of Earth turning more slowly below it. This leads to the wind appearing to bend to the east. This effect is also responsible for why hurricanes in the Northern hemisphere spin counterclockwise, while hurricanes in the Southern hemisphere spin clockwise. 

The more you delve into science from any angle, as an earth scientist or physicist for example, you will notice patterns and randomness meet, such as this one just explained, dictating the way these natural processes occur.

Remote Conferences Are Certainly No Match for Human Interaction

Jonathan Logan



Science is flexible, and since the beginning of the pandemic, scientific conferences have had to take place in virtual settings. While science and its proceedings can come across as a stream of factual calculation and conjecture, the process of sharing its findings and implications has always been uniquely human. Since the 1860s, scientists have held annual meetings in part because they believed these large gatherings would raise public awareness and, by extension, funding. The virtualization of these gatherings affects the Wooster scientific community’s ability to collaborate, connect and form research alliances for students and professors alike.

A more connected society today makes bridging and funding research projects a more seamless process. Conferences bring researchers together and promote collaborations where they otherwise would not exist. However, the pandemic has also shown how interconnectedness can lull the community into a false sense of security while simultaneously robbing it of “impromptu personal interactions,” as Professor Meagen Pollock explained. Pollock is a professor of earth sciences in the earth sciences department at the College; she attends geoscience and higher education conferences. Large gatherings of scientists have always been a centerpiece in the proceedings of its major branches, sometimes taking on a mythos of their own in everyday life and even in literature like “The Mars Trilogy.”

Pollock describes in-person scientific conferences as revitalizing and “an intense period of growing [her] professional network, nurturing established connections and sharing [her] ideas.” She elaborated on this description saying that “it has been impossible for [her] to form serendipitous connections at remote conferences.” In this sense, scientific progress has lost its randomness; the beauty in chaos is that scientific breakthroughs come from bizarre places and chance interactions. Scientific progress is not quantifiable, and how it affects scientists’ ability to make progress in the form of new connections is not lost on Pollock: “I’ve been able to connect and collaborate with people that I’ve been working with already, but I haven’t developed new connections at remote conferences.”

On the contrary, remote conferences have many upsides that often get overlooked as the loss of human interaction weighs heaviest. Remote conferences make science far more accessible to far more people. Instead of paying hundreds of dollars in registration fees and for transportation, students and faculty alike can just open their laptops. This is very challenging for large conferences. For smaller conferences that focus on sharing fledgling ideas that draw only a few hundred people, the virtual setting can be ideal. Professor James West is a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, biology, and chemistry at the College. Prior to the pandemic, West “would usually go to two or three meetings per year.” He primarily attended smaller gatherings, but since the pandemic he has “scaled back,” attending two-day-long virtual meetings and a weekly seminar series periodically. West cited a number of positives that he has taken away from his virtual experiences: “remote conferences [minimize] environmental impact and [promote] good public health practices.” Pollock also cited a number of financial or economic constraints that virtual conferences remove automatically. Larger conferences with annual meetings that draw tens of thousands of participants from around the world have always suffered from scheduling dilemmas that remote conferences take care of since talks can be recorded and rewatched in any time zone. The flipside to this argument is that single-day conferences are difficult to facilitate with people from vastly different time zones having to disrupt their daily routines just to attend a single talk.

On the future of scientific conferences, there are varying viewpoints and opinions. Wooster professors, however, seem to hold a similar confidence in the return to in-person conferences. Pollock believes that “the value and quality of in-person interactions is just too high to move to entirely remote formats.” West echoed this sentiment saying, “long-term, [he] envisions fully remote and hybrid meetings will return back to in-person, partly because having virtual options creates scheduling problems for communities that are spread out across the globe.” West added that he gets the “sense that many in [his] community long for the return of face-to-face meetings.”

These ideas seem to be very Wooster-centric, however. Nature published an article that included a survey of 900 scientists on what their feelings were about the prospect of keeping conferences virtual. Of the respondents, 74% said they hope conferences will remain remote. Most cited the “ease of attending from anywhere in the world,” but admitting to missing the in-person networking they would normally get to partake in with colleagues.

On the student front, many are wondering what undergraduate and graduate students alike are missing. For many professors, they believe it’s a lot more than just the experience. West feels that virtual conferences are still very good at getting students to practice pitching their ideas and promoting their work in front of their peers. However, he holds fast to the notion that in-person meetings are more advantageous “from a professional development perspective.” Pollock cited the fact that remote presentations are lower stakes and may allow students to just focus on conveying their ideas. The major disadvantages she sees in remote conferences are that students “have a more difficult time establishing new connections and growing their professional network.” Both Pollock and West praised Wooster students’ resilience in the face of uncertainty, regardless of the setting.

Science is not the cold, calculating fact-checking it is sometimes portrayed to be. Instead, science is just like the humans who conduct it – imperfect and always finding new ways to do the same things that have become embedded in its culture. Whether the return to in-person comes next year or years down the line, the Wooster science community will be ready with smiles impromptu ‘hellos.’

“Don’t Look Up”, A Disastrously Relatable Comedy

Melita Wiles

S&E Editor


“Don’t Look Up,” a movie released at the end of 2021, is a satire about how real-life environmental concerns such as climate change and the current COVID-19 pandemic are ignored and deemed not real issues by our society. Grad student Kate Dibiasky, played by Jennifer Lawrence, discovers the existence of an extinction-level comet. She and her advisor, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, go on multiple media shows and visit the president to present this discovery. The entire time, nobody takes their scientific findings seriously. Later in the movie, the country becomes divided by a group of people whose slogan is “just look up,” who believe in the comet and side with the scientists, and the “don’t look up” group that sides with the president, who knows that the Earth will be destroyed, but also that she is one of the few exorbitantly rich humans who get to survive the end of civilization by avoiding it on a special spaceship.

Coincidentally, in our world, an asteroid more than twice the size of the Empire State Building passed Earth safely at more than 3,000 feet around Jan. 18. Unlike the comet that was headed to Earth in “Don’t Look Up,” this asteroid does not pose an actual threat to us, but it was still unusual that something so big was able to get more than five times as far away as the moon, or about 1.2 million miles away, from Earth. The asteroid passed us going at a speed of 43,000 miles per hour. Scientists say that this asteroid will not get this close to the Earth again for at least another 200 years. Although, according to calculations, the impact of an asteroid of this size would probably trigger the end of civilization.

Although “Don’t Look Up” was partly a comedy, there are some deeper takeaways to consider from the movie. Some parts of the movie were hilarious, but the more the viewer considered what was going on and related it to the real world, the scarier the movie seemed. We are in an era where there is a real divide between people regarding scientific issues such as climate change and its consequences. In fact, some people do not think that the consequences are real. Another issue that comes to mind for many during this movie is the pandemic, and where people fall when it comes to the science behind vaccinations and masks. Some people understood the dark humor portrayed throughout the movie and made these connections while others did not. It also showed the repeated misuse of news and media that we experience in our day to day lives. While what is right and what is wrong can be confusing currently, we recommend reaching out to experts in their fields when it comes to questioning climate change or if a vaccination is safe or not. They’re experts for a reason!

Undersea Eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai Volcano

Kayla Bertholf

S&E Editor


When hearing about volcanoes, one might think of the violent eruptions portrayed as common in the prehistoric world of the dinosaurs, or of the long-ago Pompeii eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE. However, these geological events are not unique to the past. Volcanic eruptions are common and often undetectable, rarely causing noticeable damage. In fact, there are around 60-80 eruptions every year according to Dr. Meagen Pollock, an earth science professor at Wooster. Despite the common occurrence of eruptions, their “hazards are one really important reason to study volcanoes. Volcanic eruptions can be violent and dramatic.” One recent eruption has made headlines for the damage it caused. 

On Jan. 15, an underwater volcano erupted in Tonga, affecting over 1,200 miles of the surrounding areas directly, sending plumes of gas more than 12 miles into the sky, and causing a nearly 50 foot tsunami with three confirmed deaths. According to NASA, the eruption was more powerful than an atomic bomb. This volcano is mostly underwater with only the top of the crater visible above the ocean surface, yet it still managed to cause widespread destruction. This same volcano has erupted regularly over the past few decades yet rarely causes such destruction. What made this particular event different? Should we be terrified of an impending disaster? 

If you are not a volcanologist, you may first want to know what constitutes a volcano. In the words of Dr. Pollock, a volcano is a vent in the crust of the Earth from which molten rock and hot gasses (magma) are released. Pollock is a professor of earth sciences in the earth sciences department at the College. Volcanoes are formed when magma rises to the surface and escapes through the cracks in the crust. Layers of solidified magma build the classic dome-shape over time. These cracks are often very small and pressure builds as more and more magma is pushed towards the surface. When the pressure is too great, the volcano can erupt. How can we know a volcano is about to erupt? One trigger for an eruption is the movement of tectonic plates as they shift deep below Earth’s surface, causing fissures that act as weaknesses in the Earth’s crust. Other signs of an impending eruption may include small earthquakes, the emissions of steam and gas (often sulfur) and in some cases the rise of lava to the surface. 

What happens during an eruption can vary depending on the type of volcano and types of tectonic boundary they sit on. If a volcano has two tectonic plates moving towards each other with thick lava (a composite volcano), it can become very explosive when erupting, shooting hot ash and rocks high into the air. If a volcano is forming where two tectonic plates are moving away from each other with less viscous lava (a shield volcano), the danger does not come from how explosive it is but rather how quickly the lava can move and cover the ground with fresh molten rock, such as in Hawaii. If a volcano happens to be located in deep water or under a thick layer of glacial ice, the eruption can be gentle. However, if the lava erupts in shallow water or interacts with groundwater at a lower pressure, the heat from the lava causes the liquid water to turn to steam, expanding rapidly and causing a violent fragmentation of lava such as in the Tonga eruption, according to Pollock. 

Perhaps the greatest danger of a volcanic eruption is what happens to the surrounding area afterwards. The lava itself can cause damage to whatever it comes into contact with. The volcanic ash can cause breathing problems and disrupt visibility, especially for airplane pilots, as it lingers in the air. Further, volcanic eruptions can cause the formation of toxic gas clouds, pyroclastic flows, avalanches, tsunamis and mudflows. These can lead to secondary effects such as property and crop loss, and changes to the weather and climate. “Volcanoes near large population centers that erupt violently with little notice are the most destructive and dangerous, said Pollock” 

Are eruptions no more than horrible scenes of death and destruction? Not always. The eruption of a volcano can cause the creation of new land or islands, such as with the Hawaiian Islands. If the layer of ash released is not too thick, it can break down to become fertile farmland. The verdict on if we should all be actively terrified of volcanoes? Probably not. 

The First Extragalactic Exoplanet to be Discovered from Outside the Milky Way

Melita Wiles

S&E Editor


Recently, scientists have discovered what they think is the first planet ever to be found outside our galaxy. This possible exoplanet, meaning a planet outside our solar system, was discovered in the Whirlpool Galaxy (the spiral galaxy Messier 51 (M51)) by NASA’s Chandra X-ray observatory, according to NASA. All other exoplanets ever discovered have been found in the Milky Way Galaxy, until now. Most of them are less than 3,000 light-years from Earth. This new exoplanet could be up to 28 million light-years away, thousands of times farther than the others. 

Although this discovery marks a major milestone in astrophysics, the planet’s existence cannot be confirmed for another 70 years. This is because the possible extragalactic exoplanet has a large orbit; it will not cross in front of the binary path for another 70 years with a large margin of error. This means scientists must wait to see another transit. The team of scientists who made the discovery used X-ray wavelengths, which are undetectable to the human eye. 

The team used dips in the brightness of X-rays from X-ray bright binaries, which contain a neutron star or black hole. A black hole is essentially sucking material off of a small host star (usually a neutron star). The stellar material being sucked up by the black hole radiates X-rays. The brightness of this event is well-known and can be used to measure distances relative to other events (like the transit of this mystery extragalactic exoplanet). 

If this discovery is proven, experts say that it would have had to survive a supernova explosion, which is an explosion of stellar materials at speeds up to several percent of the speed of light. There is a dying star very near the system of interest. This supernova would drive an expanding shock wave into the surrounding interstellar medium, obliterating the exoplanet. 

Scientists believe that the companion star could explode as a supernova and blast the planet with high levels of radiation. The Harvard-Smithsonian Center of Astrophysics’ lead researcher Rosanne Di Stefano has contributed to this finding and the new process to discover far away objects through X-ray technology. 

Other scientists say these X-ray techniques are brilliant and clever, but “unlikely that it could be used to find hundreds of thousands of planetary candidates because it also relies on luck.” This is because the viewer can only view these objects when the bodies in space line up perfectly, which happens for only a few minutes to hours. Nevertheless, Di Stefano said that it is gratifying that the new method for searching for extragalactic exoplanets, which she and her colleagues first theorized in 2018, has produced an “enticing result.” 

These results are monumental to the laboratory which made the discovery, but also the astrophysics world. The technique and result will lead to a whole new area of astrophysics data that can be collected and analyzed.