Can better technology prevent drownings?

Credit: Solitude at English Wikipedia, via Wikimedia Commons

Credit: Solitude at English Wikipedia, via Wikimedia Commons

Forgive a scary statistic that may interfere with your summertime fun, but the month of June is already half over, which means that if past trends marked by the CDC have held true, then more than 200 people have already drowned in the U.S. since Memorial Day. That toll at beaches, in pools and bathtubs, and around other bodies of water doesn’t include the approximately 20 others who drowned in boating-related incidents. Nor does it reflect all the undocumented, largely preventable situations in which people nearly drown, an experience that can do permanent neurological harm.

Some of these untimely deaths befell children and adults who were genuinely alone at the time, but as I noted in a blog post from two years ago on this subject, a tragically high number occurred in public places, often right under the noses of parents, spouses, friends, other swimmers, and lifeguards. (That’s how my father’s youngest sister died in a crowded Boston city pool many years ago.)

The fundamental problems are twofold. First, people do not always take the precautions that could minimize the chances of accidental drowning, which include:
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Category: Health, Technology | Leave a comment

Forgive Jonah Lehrer? Not yet

Last year after the unraveling of his serial plagiarism, lies, and falsification of quotes led to Jonah Lehrer’s resignation from The New Yorker and the removal of his book Imagine: How Creativity Works from bookstores, many assumed that he would have the good manners to slink away in shame for a while.

Say_Anything_LEHRERNot so. The thunderclap you heard Thursday night came from science journalists everywhere slapping their foreheads in disbelief at the news that Jonah Lehrer has signed a book contract with Simon & Schuster. Lehrer has turned into John Cusack from Say Anything: he’s the suitor who won’t go away, standing in the rain outside our window with a boom box over his head, imploring us with the lyrics of Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” (“…the light the heat / in your eyes / I am complete…“). If this were a movie, his pained sincerity would touch us and we would run out for a tearful reunion, but since this is real life, what we instead remember is that when persistent exes don’t accept that you’ve broken up with them for being creeps, they only get creepier.
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Category: Journalism, Science Writing | 10 Comments

What Not to Do During a Tornado

Doppler on Wheels storm-chasing vehicle, with a tornado in the distance. (Credit: Center for Severe Weather Research)

Doppler on Wheels storm-chasing vehicle, with a tornado in the distance. (Credit: Center for Severe Weather Research)

The deaths of three experienced storm chasers—Tim Samaras, his son and fellow researcher Paul, and Carl Young—in the EF5 tornado that struck El Reno, Okla. this past Friday has spurred critics to again attack the folly of those who put themselves in the way of twisters by choice. It should. Being around any tornado is insanely dangerous, and the one in El Reno on May 31 was a monster among monsters: its funnel was 2.6 miles across, the widest ever documented in the U.S., and radar clocked its wind speeds a few hundred feet above the ground at 296 miles per hour.

The Samarases and Young weren’t in El Reno for the sake of entertainment, though they had all been featured on the Discovery Channel program Storm Chasers. Tim Samara was a respected tornado investigator and the founder of TWISTEX (Tactical Weather Instrumented Sampling in Tornadoes Experiment), the field team to which Paul Samaras and Carl Young also belonged. (Examples of Tim’s published research can be found here, here, and here.) Other researchers seem to have regarded him as brave but cautious, and not a thrillseeker.

Unfortunately, no amount of experience might have made a difference in a direct confrontation with a storm this powerful and erratic. Other storm chasers on the scene who got too close saw their cars battered catastrophically. A car holding Mark Bettes of The Weather Channel and other passengers was thrown 200 yards (he and the other occupants were injured but not killed). The SRV Dominator 2, an 8,000-lb. storm-chasing vehicle armored against tornado damage by storm chaser Reed Timmer, had its hood torn off. Richard Charles Anderson, an amateur storm chaser, was also killed only minutes after snapping a photo of the El Reno twister.
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Category: Climate, Environment | 2 Comments

Discussing Obama’s Brain-mapping Project

For better or worse, the Brain Activity Map project to which Barack Obama alluded in his recent State of the Union address is now a high profile endeavor that may be attacked for reasons that have as much to do with politics and the economy as they do the real scientific merits. But as one example of a discussion of the science, and as a pointer to more resources about the controversies involved, I present this Storify of an enlightening conversation I had recently on the subject.

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Category: Biology, Neuroscience, Politics | Leave a comment

Exoplanets bore me (and what that means for science news)

Please, before you pillory me for being so jaded that I’ve stopped caring about something so monumental as the discovery of planets around other stars, read on. My participation at a wonderful SpotOn NYC science communications event on Feb. 20, “Telling Stories with Scientists,” led me into some terrific, thoughtful discussions about the value of narrative in science writing and the difficulties of incorporating those into news coverage. Not all the good conversation was confined to the event; it continued to fine effect afterward on Twitter.

What follows is a Storify I compiled of the exchange.


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Category: Science Writing, Space | 2 Comments

Evolved Fists or the Best Weapons at Hand?

Photo: Mike Nelson, via Flickr (CC BY, 2010)

My most memorable punch in the face was a beaut. Back during my first year of studying karate, some classmates and I had met up for a little unsupervised sparring practice—never a good idea for novices. After an hour or so of this, my friend Eric and I were easing out of it with what was supposed to be an easy cool-down round when he, with a surge of enthusiasm, threw a left jab that popped me front and center across the chin, teeth, and tip of the nose. (So nicely placed.)

My eyes rolled up into my skull and a warm red blanket of numbness closed in from every side of my field of vision. My knees slowly folded, all resolve to support my worthless body gone. Fight over! My concerned friends looked on while I, on the floor, gingerly felt out whether there was any actual damage (there wasn’t… that time). The punch hadn’t been so much painful as deeply stunning, and it was probably a good ten minutes before I stopped feeling its disorienting effects.

Experiences like that one, not to mention the far more powerful punches in prize fights or even board-breaking demonstrations by martial artists, can inspire considerable respect for the prowess of the human hand as a weapon. They also inspired a widely publicized recent study by evolutionary biologists Michael H. Morgan and David R. Carrier at the University of Utah, who have suggested that while evolution was reshaping our hands to improve our ability to use tools, it was also shaping them to throw more effective punches.

It’s a clever speculation, and its authors don’t really offer it as much more than that. Perhaps it contains a kernel of truth worth further investigation. Personally, though, I find it unpersuasive on evolutionary grounds—and what the heck, on fighting grounds, too.


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Category: Biology, Evolution, Evolutionary Psychology, Martial Arts | 10 Comments

Why the sky crane isn’t the future for Mars landings

Sky crane delivers Curiosity to Martian surface in artist’s conception. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Given all the attention that it is receiving, the innovative technology that will place the Curiosity rover on Mars — the sky crane — may seem like something that we’ll be seeing much more of during future space missions. Yet it’s not. In fact, there’s good reason to suspect that it will be a long time before the sky crane is used again on Mars, if ever.

Of course, its prospects do depend on the success or failure of the Curiosity landing, but let’s hopefully assume the best. [Update, 1:36 a.m. EDT, Mon.: The best occurs! Success!] Instinctive skepticism has always greeted the plan: it is complicated and unorthodox, and a mishap anywhere along the chain of feats in involves leads to disaster. Even those of us enthusiastic about the sky crane have often conceded that it sounds crazy but might just be crazy enough to work. Even that skepticism, though, isn’t exactly why the sky crane won’t be selected for many other missions.


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Category: Space, Technology | 33 Comments

Satisfying Curiosity: preparing for the Mars landing

Artist's depiction of the Curiosity rover on Mars. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)Unless you are freshly returned from outer space, you have probably already heard about tonight’s eagerly awaited landing of Curiosity, the next Mars rover. By roughly 1:31 a.m. EDT on Monday, the Mars Space Laboratory vehicle will have either delivered the $2.5 billion rover safely to the planet’s surface or dropped it there, broken and maybe dysfunctional. [Update, 1:35 a.m. EDT, Mon.: Success!!!] Either way, Curiosity’s arrival promises to be one of the most dramatic (and media-saturated) science events of the year.

Descent stage of the Mars Science Laboratory vehicle, lowering the folded Curiosity rover in the sky crane maneuver. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Are you ready for it, and for what could the trove of discoveries that the rover may make in the months and years ahead? Here’s a brief backgrounder.


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Category: Space, Technology | 15 Comments

Science Fiction Kitchenware

The officially licensed Star Trek Enterprise pizza cutter: Go where no mozzarella has gone before. (Photo: Joe Hall, via Flickr/joebeone)

Somewhere out in space, past Tatooine, Arrakis, Gallifrey, Trantor, and the Delta Quadrant, there is a wedding registry at the end of the universe. Kind of a Bed Bath & Beyond with extra emphasis on the beyond. Please consider what follows to be its catalog.

It began to take shape as a result of my browsing through Space.com to check back on a news story I’d noticed last week. The loading of my page was delayed by a pop-up advertising a product available in the site’s gift shop: an official Star Trek licensed replica of the USS Enterprise (NCC-1701) starship incarnated as a pizza knife. See how the sharpened rim of the spinning saucer section stands ready to slice through any Tholian web of string cheese?

My tweeted comment about it led to an exchange with science blogger David Shiffman (@WhySharksMatter) of Southern Fried Science.

@tvjrennie: For $30, you could buy this Star Trek Enterprise pizza slicer. goo.gl/Skr8H Eat pizza with your imaginary girlfriend!

@WhySharksMatter: @tvjrennie My girlfriend tolerates my Darth Vader spatula. It’s actually a really nice spatula.

Naturally, I replied with my hallmark restraint and dry wit. Because less is more.

@tvjrennie: @WhySharksMatter <breath> “Turn to the dark side of the pancake, Julia!”

@tvjrennie: @WhySharksMatter <breath> “Together, we shall rule the breakfast buffet!”

@tvjrennie: @WhySharksMatter <breath> “I AM YOUR SPATULA!!!”

Then it only seemed right to open up the discussion more widely.

@tvjrennie: [1/2] Apropos the Star Trek Enterprise pizza cutter, I am alerted by @WhySharksMatter to the existence of a Darth Vader spatula. So…

@tvjrennie: [2/2] Please tell me of other sci-fi themed kitchenware, real or imagined. #scifikitchenware

And we were off to the races with a list of actual science fiction-themed kitchen products, starting with what I think we can all agree was far too much more information about David Shiffman’s spatula. The licensing people for the world’s science fiction franchises have been very busy….

For the rest of this story, see my complete retelling of events on Storify.

Category: Entertainment | Leave a comment

Transits of Earth from Other Planets

Credit: NASA

News media over the past few days have been tiled over with stories prompted by the transit of Venus later today, when the planet crosses in front of the sun’s disk. The event by all means deserves the attention, given its rarity, its historical and ongoing scientific importance, and the colorful adventures that have sometimes followed quests to watch it. I’ve even contributed to the glut myself with my SmartPlanet column from last week about how the transit of Venus relates to the search for worlds around other stars.

But let’s turn away from Venus for a moment and consider a parallel event that has never yet been seen; one that is paradoxically both more remote and closer to home: the transit of Earth as viewed from other planets.

All the planets of our solar system except Mercury and Venus have opportunities to see transits of Earth, at least in principle. (Mercury and Venus, of course, do not because they lie between the sun and Earth’s orbit, which is why we can see their transits.) And if any of the more than 2,300 planet candidates identified by the Kepler space observatory have civilizations that lofted their own versions of the Kepler, they are in a position to see transits of Earth, too: by definition, their orbits must sometimes align with the plane of Earth’s. [Note that Robert in comments says this last point is incorrect.]


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Category: Space | 11 Comments