Category Archives: Science & Environment

NASA’s new rover ushers in new era of science

Megan Fisher

Contributing Writer

 

On Feb. 18, the next Mars Rover, Perseverance, will have landed near the Jezero Crater on Mars after a more than six-month journey to the red planet. Preceding Perseverance are the Rovers Spirit and Opportunity (almost known as Rock and Roll), which launched in 2003. Another rover, Curiosity, launched in 2012, and then a stationary lander, Insight, launched in 2018. All rovers take up the mission of exploring the viability of life on Mars, specifically the history of water near the surface, other life sustaining elements like oxygen and the seismic activity of the planet. The rovers get their name from NASA’s “Name the Rover” contest where students in kindergarten through 12th grade can submit essays behind the name they propose for the next rover. The name Perseverance was submitted by Alexander Mather with an essay stating that perseverance is the most important quality of the human race, and that “not as a nation but as humans, will not give up. The human race will always persevere into the future.”

Perseverance will use a landing approach affectionately called the “seven minutes of terror.”  The descent and landing of the rover will take seven minutes, but information in the form of radio waves will take 14 minutes to transmit from Mars to Earth. Therefore, the process must be completely automated and mission control will not know the outcome until the whole process has already taken place. At the top of the Martian atmosphere, Perseverance will deploy a parachute to begin to slow it down, and a heat shield to protect the vehicle from getting scorched during landing. The Perseverance computer and artificial intelligence system will examine the terrain when it gets within meters of the surface to determine the optimal landing spot. The parachute will be released, and the rest of the landing will be powered by rocket boosters to (hopefully) safely land at the surface.

The Perseverance rover hopes to make many scientific advances toward the goal of humans habituating Mars. It features a drill that will collect core samples of rocks and soils to look for evidence of microbial life in Mars’ history. Perseverance will also be hosting an experiment to see if oxygen can be produced from the Martian atmosphere. The Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (M.O.X.I.E.) is looking to turn the Martian atmosphere, made of 96 percent carbon dioxide, into oxygen in order to both sustain human life and use liquid oxygen as fuel. The mechanism works very similarly to plants on Earth; the machine breathes in carbon dioxide and breathes out oxygen.

 Perseverance is also home to a new kind of smaller rover never before used to explore Mars. Ingenuity, the new, smaller rover, is a helicopter that will demonstrate test flights on Mars. While not directly related to the Perseverance science objectives, Ingenuity’s flight demonstration could be pivotal for future transportation after landing on Mars for both robots and humans. Flying on Mars is more difficult than expected because of the very thin atmosphere. The movie “The Martian” contends that dust storms on Mars would have much force, but in reality, there are so few air particles present on Mars that even when moving fast, they muster very little force as a whole. This has to be taken into account when designing Ingenuity. Engineers had to design a base both lightweight but sturdy, and wings that could generate enough lift to carry this base through the Martian air. This resulted in two propellers with a rotational diameter of four feet rotating 2,400 times-per-minute to be able to create enough lift to carry the only four-pound base.

New geoscience courses emphasize career readiness and diversity

Jonathan Logan

Science & Environment Editor

Melita Wiles

Science & Environment Editor

 

This year has brought a number of disruptions for all of us, but some changes have been innovative and welcoming to students. The Earth Science department has added a new course this semester specifically for major students called “Geoscience Careers,” and another new course, not yet named for first- and second-year students to explore science, technology, engineering and mathematics (S.T.E.M.) fields. Megan Pollock, associate professor of earth sciences, and her colleagues have created these smaller classes to develop a cohort — a community of students — within the field of geoscience. The goal is to make students in this cohort feel supported academically and professionally and allow them to speak their minds and ask questions freely.  

Pollock said the inspiration for the class, directed towards juniors and seniors within the major, stemmed from the realization that students were struggling with connecting their academics to their plans outside of Wooster; either to their time between school years or their time after graduation. In these courses, they will learn what their options are, whether it is an internship, graduate school or a job in industry.  

The class takes a four-pronged approach to achieving its goal of connecting students’ Wooster experiences to life after graduation. First, a close partnership with A.P.E.X. was seen as necessary to help geoscience students “think about their professional brand,” said Pollock. This is something that all students need to consider before they graduate. Working closely with A.P.E.X. ensures that students seamlessly connect what they do in the classroom to their resumes, interview skills and overall professional development.   

In addition to building a professional brand, students also have the unique opportunity to work alongside scientists and staff of Environmental Design Group (EDG), an Akron-based company, through what Pollock called the Community Partner Project. Students work with EDG in the community of Wooster on a stormwater runoff project. In addition to gaining professional experience, students get to sharpen their technical skills and nurture interpersonal skills, while making a tangible difference in the broader Wooster community. Stormwater management is becoming more relevant to small cities as climate change causes more severe rain events. A good stormwater management program not only maintains the overall health of infrastructure, but also lessens the impact of crises caused by severe storms.  

In addition to working with EDG, students work with the Ohio State University’s Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC) as another way to tailor their work to Wooster on a more local level. Beyond the work with EDG and OARDC, students can also obtain a stormwater certification online through StormwaterONE, which has credentialed more than 15,000 professionals in the fields of geoscience, engineering and construction.  

Lastly, the class encourages reflection. Students across all disciplines can attest to the confusion that learning at the college level induces. To ameliorate the confusion that sometimes accompanies learning, this course builds students’ confidence by engaging students in a reflective component of the class. Pollock insightfully mentioned that students often overlook how far they have come, and said she wants all S.T.E.M. students to recognize the impact they can have based solely on the value they have created in themselves.   

The other class that is being offered this coming fall semester is primarily for first- and second-year students. It is directed at students who do not know a lot about geosciences but want to explore their options.  

This summer, there is also a geoscience program through the Applied Methods and Research Experience (AMRE) with priority given to first year students, specifically BIPOC and other underrepresented groups. The aim is to get more students from diverse backgrounds interested in S.T.E.M. Through the AMRE program, students can gain hands-on experience, learn about potential paths in geoscience and create a strong S.T.E.M. community. The AMRE project, which is similar to the project in the Geoscience Careers class, will help students develop hard geoscience skills and make connections between S.T.E.M. and the community. This summer program is especially important to Pollock, as she believes there are many different problems to solve in geoscience, making it necessary to have a diverse group of people studying these problems in order to make progress as a science.   

When asked about how she plans to create a welcoming, supportive community, Pollock said that she plans on having third- and fourth-year students as peer mentors, who have completed the Geoscience Careers course, to guide first- and second-year students. This will not only add to the supportive cohort Pollock mentioned, but also build confidence in the younger students looking to continue in the geoscience major.  

As stated before, Pollock’s goals include focusing on professionalism while teaching and helping students improve their hard and soft geoscience skills throughout the class. This is to ensure they are well-versed in the discipline of their choosing before graduating. Pollock’s response to a question about what motivated her was a call to action: there is a lack of diversity in geoscience. Although there have been a lot of resources and funding directed towards improving this problem, there has been no explicit movement in the geosciences to fill this gap; she believes it to be her responsibility to do something about this.   

While Wooster has such a multi-faceted population, there is still room for more diversity in the geosciences and S.T.E.M. in general. Pollock is pushing for the development of a culture where everyone knows how diverse the S.T.E.M. community needs to be. This push is just the start and needs to grow quickly. The problems in our world are urgent; they include climate change, myriad natural hazards and many others. Solutions to these problems will benefit from the thinking of a diverse group of minds.  

The geosciences continue to be one of the least diverse science disciplines. A recent study from Nature Geoscience found that 90 percent of doctoral degrees were awarded to white people, and faculty of color hold only about four percent of tenured or tenure track positions in the top 100 geoscience programs across the United States. These alarming statistics should be a wake-up call to geoscientists and have been to Pollock. Greater diversity leads to better science, innovation, decision making and a better representation of community needs. Science affects everyone, so representation must be broad with people from a multitude of backgrounds in these fields. It can be difficult to choose a discipline to which one does not have a personal connection. Therefore, by involving more diverse groups in S.T.E.M., others can be inspired to become a part of the S.T.E.M. community.  

The Earth Science department at The College of Wooster is helping diversify their field and other S.T.E.M. fields by fostering a safe and inclusive environment for people to excel at science during their time at Wooster and beyond. Pollock wants to show every student that there is a place for everyone in S.T.E.M., even though the science can be daunting and difficult given the environmental and industrial problems associated with the field. There is a stigma within the geosciences that it is the “easy” science. But is fixing the problem of climate change or preventing a natural disaster that simple? It has become clear to the world that the former is not that simple to solve. Pollock wants to bring students who are diverse, smart, and hardworking into the major. As she said, “We are not rocks for jocks. We are not all old white men in flannels.”  

While Pollock would love for all students to come out of their first-year classes as declared geoscientists, she believes that she will have succeeded if the students pick any discipline in S.T.E.M. By incorporating these classes into the geoscience curriculum. Pollock hopes that juniors and seniors will feel more prepared for life after Wooster — in terms of professionalism and their science skills — and that younger students will learn more about the field of geoscience. Her advice to any student potentially interested in any aspect of science is to reach out and communicate with her. She is happy to talk about science with all students. Pollock can be contacted at mpollock@wooster.edu

The ivory tower meets the masses: responding to science denialism

Jonathan Logan

Science & Environment Editor

 

The astronomers Galileo and Copernicus found themselves at odds with the Catholic Church centuries ago as they postulated “heretical” ideas about the solar system. Yet, Christianity still runs strong through the hearts of over two billion people. To the Church, science and objective truth were seen as degrading to the profound spiritual connection it had worked to cultivate with God. Even today, the rigidity of the scientific method and the reality of the lived experience clash over topics as simple as the shape of our planet.

This gap must be bridged. Reason must replace cold logic and staunch denialism. Scientists must come down from their ivory towers and denialists from their world of information saturation to engage one another — a walk in the other person’s shoes. And no, Twitter is not a forum for genuine engagement.

Denialism is often associated with the grieving process, but in a world of talking heads, science denialism is generally rooted in the idea of questioning everything — yes, scientists’ curiosity has been inverted and turned on them. Where questioning everything becomes denialism is the point at which the mentality overrides the response people have to being presented with a reasonable argument and conclusion.

Curiosity and the process of peer-review are the forces that create and push back against science denialism. The world of scientific research and publishing remains out of reach to all but the Ph.D. It would do scientists good to recognize that the same mistrust of establishment politicians fuels the mistrust of science. People feel disconnected from science the same way they feel disconnected from the elected officials they chose to represent them. The average peer-reviewed research paper published in well-respected journals is often too complex for even an undergraduate student to understand without spending hours researching every word in the abstract.

Science communication and the implementation of scientific policy are key to solving this problem. The normal academic response to denialists is to engage the denier in debate. However, these debates often devolve into arguments that do little more than highlight differences in beliefs, lifestyle and selective arguments that nitpick. Instead of pointing out the ignorance of denialists, scientists and those in positions of influence should identify the process denialists take to reach their bizarre conclusions. Pascal Diethelm and Martin McKee argued in a paper published in the European Journal of Public Health that scientists ought to sidestep the denialist’s rejection of evidence and involve the general public in “exposing the tactics the denialists employ.” Consensus, not cold logic and scientific “bible beating,” can overcome denialism while the majority of people are reasonable enough to accept strong evidence.

Attention drives much of human behavior, especially in a democracy where every voice counts. Flat-earthers (flearthers) are a prime example. Much of their denialism is fueled by eccentric thoughts. Flearthers pose no real threat to our existence or survival. Paying no attention may well be the best course of action in cases like this.

 On the other hand, climate change poses a very real and immediate threat to our species. The process by which climate denialists most often arrive at their conclusion is rooted in greed (oil tycoons and beneficiaries). They are also masters of selective argumentation — nitpicking the most minute detail, taking it out of context and twisting it to accommodate their worldview. There is no quick fix to climate change or the denial thereof. A Nature article published in 2019 suggested that steady perseverance in exposing the flawed arguments will ultimately give way to the progress we are now seeing in industries such as renewable energy.

In 1999, the former president of South Africa, Thambo Mbeki, drew international attention when he continually argued that HIV did not cause AIDS despite the overwhelming amounts of scientific evidence suggesting otherwise. Mbeki prevented many people from accessing drugs to treat the condition. Instead, the government recommended herbal treatments. The denialism in this case has been estimated to have caused over 300,000 deaths.

These situations and understanding the diverse worldviews that lead to science denialism are integral in informing and confronting the issues at hand. A walk in the other person’s shoes should always be the first step in understanding where a denialist comes from. Then, exposing the tactics they employ instead of scientific bible beating should lend itself consensus and reason. From harmless flearthers to presidents to the keyboard warrior on Twitter, we all have a profound responsibility to be curious, ask questions and reason through dialogue.

Get caught in the churn of the Fourth Wave

Jonathan Logan

Science & Environment Editor

 

The year 2020 was the first time that over 20 percent of all electricity generated in the United States could be traced back to a renewable energy source. A New York Times article promptly noted that in the two most populous states, California and Texas, renewables “produced electricity more cheaply than natural gas and coal.” A Pew Research poll found that 77 percent of Americans believe it is more important to invest in developing alternative sources of electricity than to continue to rely on unpredictable oil prices and fossil fuels. Fossil fuels will continue to be a major player in the energy sector, but 2020 indicates that environmental initiatives have nowhere to go but onward and upward.

2020 was an inflection year in many industries and for many movements. The sudden shift and high growth that renewable sectors from solar to wind experienced in 2020 are part of a larger force sweeping the world. The Fourth Wave of environmental innovation is that larger force; encompassing new digital capabilities, grassroots movements and action through legislation. Building on the First, Second and Third Waves of environmental innovation (land conservation, force of law and market-based solutions respectively), the Fourth Wave drives “innovation that gives people the power to take action.” Medium, an online publishing platform that seeks to give a voice to online writers, has gathered environmental experts and ideas from all over the planet to create a platform devoted entirely to keeping the Fourth Wave energized.

Big data and the digital revolution make a natural couple with the Fourth Wave. A major part of environmental innovation and a driver in both the Third and Fourth Waves have and will continue to be startups. Startups are high-growth tech and science-based companies. Harnessing technology like big data analytics to promote environmental stewardship can make for an unstoppable business model. Seattle-based LevelTen Energy is a prime example of theses environmental startups that the Fourth Wave has nurtured. Founded in 2016, LevelTen helps small businesses transition to clean energy. They offer energy proportional to company size and streamline the transition by providing clients with data analysis, market research and potential clean energy providers. In their most recent round of funding, LevelTen raised 28 million dollars — people are willing to pay for a green world.

Medium highlighted the convergence of grassroots movements and environmental innovation in an article detailing the growing popularity of apps that rate companies based on environmental practices. Google notoriously gives the one to five stars along with a few snarky comments from disgruntled keyboard activists. The Find Green app, developed by Conservation X Labs, allows consumers to pinpoint companies that go out of their way to promote environmental stewardship. In recent years, the demand for eco-friendly products has promoted green practices among many businesses and opened up an entirely new market that companies like LevelTen and Conservation X Labs can tap into — generating economic opportunity and fueling the innovation that drives the Fourth Wave.

More than meets the eye: beauty in particle scattering

Melita Wiles

Science & Environment Editor

 

The atmosphere does so much to make our planet habitable for us. It provides us with oxygen, protects us from dangerous rays and traps heat, thus making the Earth a livable temperature. The atmosphere contributes to other things that we may take for granted as well like a beautiful clear blue sky or the breathtaking colors of sunsets at dusk.

Our world is made up of billions of particles, including dust, gases, water and other particles that linger throughout the atmosphere. Sunlight and the composition of our atmosphere contribute to the colors of the sky, including blue days, reddish-orange sunsets and white clouds.

Sunlight, which is a mixture of all colors, travels in the form of electromagnetic waves and passes through air, which causes electrons and protons in air molecules to wiggle up and down. These electrons and protons emit electromagnetic radiation at the same frequency as the incoming sunlight, but shoot off the electromagnetic radiation in many different pathways. This occurrence is called scattering because the radiation is dispersed in many directions. The faster the particles move, the more scattering occurs, and the blue part of the light causes more scattering.

The explanation behind this phenomenon comes from an idea in physics called the Rayleigh Law of Scattering. This law states that the intensity of light is inversely proportional to the fourth power of the wavelength. This scattering was first observed by Rayleigh in 1871 and thus named after him. Basically, the shorter the wavelength, the more scattering occurs and vice versa. From this law we can conclude that the shortest wavelength of color will scatter the most. Therefore, violet has the shortest wavelength, meaning that we should see a mostly violet sky. However, this is obviously not what we see so, why do we see blue instead of violet? The blue cones in our eyes are less sensitive to violet light,  so we see mostly blue light. Therefore, we see the sky as blue, except during cloud coverage. Without this sensitivity, we would see a violet sky.

Sometimes the sky does change color. For example, during sunsets the sky is not entirely blue; it turns a reddish orange. The concept of scattering explains the color of sunsets as well. During sunset, sunlight travels a greater distance to reach Earth, causing it to pass through more particles. The scattering that occurs and creates blue light happens farther out in the atmosphere. In fact, it occurs so far out that we cannot see the blue. Thus, the non-scattered light that extends to us is red and orange, which makes the sunset.

Similarly, this idea of scattering can be applied to other planets as well. To people on Earth, the sky is usually blue, but on Mars, the common, everyday sky color is a reddish-brown or rust. On the other hand, Martian sunsets appear blue to earthlings because the location of the dust particles makes the color blue much more distinguishable. For other celestial bodies or planets and moons in outer space, the color of sunsets varies. The sunsets of Uranus begin blue and gradually transition to turquoise. Titan, one of Saturn’s moons, has a sunset that starts yellow to orange and finally turns brown.

The principle of scattering can be related to looking at light through a prism. When viewing white light through a prism, we see a multitude of colors shooting off the prism. Light that, at first glance, seems white, is actually made up of all the colors of the rainbow. Clouds are white because the sunlight hits different types of particles in areas where an abundance of water droplets are located. There are gas particles also but there are far more water particles (because clouds are made of water droplets). When sunlight hits water particles, they scatter different types of light. This is similar to the prism example, but in reverse, and therefore the color of clouds is white or close to white.

The next time someone asks, “Why is the sky blue?” or “Why are sunsets red?” you can explain that the sunlight interacting with the gaseous, light and dust particles in the atmosphere scatters electromagnetic radiation of mostly the same wavelength, which is blue, or in other words, because of particle scattering.

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.