Category Archives: Science

‘Will research for beer’

I work with scientists every day. To be honest, there are times I wonder what motivates them on a particular project. Now I know.

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New year’s resolutions and science jokes

This morning the alarm clock rang at 6:15 am for the first time since December 22. It could have waited a while longer, in my opinion. I was getting used to those sleep-ins.

It’s January 2 and time to return to work. Things are slow today. Officially, it’s not a holiday for us, but most of our staff is taking a vacation day to say home and watch football (I guess.) I have set my DVR to tape the Gators in the Gator Bowl and will watch it tonight when I get home. The game is between two 6-6 teams, so who really cares if they see it “live?”

Looking back on 2011, it’s been a pretty good year. Our family has been, for the most part, healthy and happy. The year had few down spots, and many good times. My trip to Europe in the spring was a great experience.

Myself and my brother at the Cathedral of Notre Dame

I hope to make another trip soon, his time with Mrs. Poolman (although the trip with Mrs. P will not entail the military history focus.)

In catching up on some news-related Web sites, I came across all kinds of “New Year’s Resolutions” topics. One really rang a bell with me. Take a look at this column. It’s worth a short read. I wonder if he would mind if I just adopt his as mine also.

One of our scientists sent me an email with a joke voted the funniest by a group of scientists.  “I thought this would give you some insight into the people you work with,” he said.

A couple of New Jersey hunters are out in the woods when one of them falls to the ground. He doesn’t seem to be breathing, his eyes are rolled back in his head. The other guy whips out his cell phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps to the operator: “My friend is dead! What can I do?” The operator, in a calm soothing voice says: “Just take it easy. I can help. First, let’s make sure he’s dead.” There is a silence, then a shot is heard. The guy’s voice comes back on the line. He says: “OK, now what?”

I had heard it before. Not great, but not as bad as it could be, like maybe something like this.

Q: Why are quantum physicists so poor at sex?

A: Because when they find the position, they can’t find the momentum, and when they have the momentum, they can’t find the position.

If you don’t “get it,” that’s OK. Most people not familiar with Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principal wouldn’t either.

On that weak note, here’s hoping everyone reading this has a great 2012!

A great turnout for our open house

We had a very full and exhausting Saturday a week ago.

We and all of our campus partners sponsored our annual open house event. Although three other organizations are involved in the project, it falls on my shoulders to organize, coordinate, publicize and trouble-shoot the event.  I have a ton of help so I don’t want it to sound like I’m a one-man-band. But the day of the event, it is very full, busy and tiring.

We had over 2,000 visitors throughout the afternoon. Here are some sample-pictures.

For the past six years, I have wanted to do nothing more the evening of our open house, than to go home, fix a drink, turn on some football and maybe order some wings or pizza. This year, we had two invitations to parties.  We had to pass on one of Mrs. Poolman’s friend’s 50th birthday party in favor of a dinner party at Writer Princess’s and Son-in-Law’s. This was their first event since moving into their house. Fortunately, they didn’t mind me watching the UF-Auburn game, although why I bothered, I don’t know. Ugly.

We went home and “crashed” early. We spent Sunday hanging around the house, doing laundry, yard work, etc.

Such an exciting life we live.

A lovely trip to Sapelo Island

It’s been a busy two weeks. Now it’s time to catch up.

Earlier this month, I had an interesting day-trip. I had been asked to address a “master naturalist” class being held on Sapelo Island. Sapelo is a coastal island about 40 miles south of Savannah. I was out the door by 6:30 am, just to make absolutely sure I was on board the 8:30 am ferry to the island.

I got to the ferry just as the sun was coming up and the view was almost worth having to get up in the dark of the night.

A beautiful morning.

Marsh near the Sapelo ferry dock.

Nearly ready to go.

The passengers on the morning ferry ride.

Sapelo Island is an interesting place. Even with the ferry, access is restricted. You have to be invited to go there, either because you are visiting one of the residents, or you have some business on the island.  I have been there before when I visited the old Gulluh-Geechee community of Hog Hammock. The occasion at the time had been to accompany a professor-linguist who was working with the local residents to translate some old recordings that had been made on the island in the 1930s. This time, I was headed to the University of Georgia Marine Institute. It is located on the old RJ Reynolds (tobacco fortune) property.

I and some of the other speakers were picked up at the dock in one of the open-air trucks.  I’m glad it was a bright, sunny day, and not storming.

Sapelo Island's answer to mass transit.

I met up with Don Gardener, the extension service agent who invited me to the talk. My talk apparently was well received. I was scheduled for an hour on the agenda, which is about three times our normal civic club talk. But the group seemed to stay engaged, and there were lots of questions. That is good.

While waiting to depart for the 230 pm ferry trip, I got to talking with Dorset Hurley, the research director of the Sapelo Island National Esturine Research Reserve. He had a little time on his hands, so he offered to take me for a drive around the south end of the island. Nice guy. The tour included the historic light house.

Sapelo Island light house

He also gave me with a great rundown of the kind of salt marsh research they are doing there.

The entire ambience of Sapelo is very laid back. One good example of that is what I was told to do in the event my expected “ride” back to the ferry dock did not arrive in time.

“Just take one of these pick up trucks. Drive it to the dock and just leave the keys in the ignition.”

Clearly, auto theft is not a major problem when you are on a small island and there is no way to get the vehicle off.

In any case, my ride showed up in time and I was on the 230 ferry for the half-hour trip back to the mainland.

Back to the mainland.

All told, it was a very nice day. Back to work.

Science Bowl, Super Bowl, halubkys and a ‘suite” upgrade

We have been busy the last few days.

On Saturday, I was a “rule judge” for a regional competition of the National Ocean Science Bowl. This was a “college bowl” type competition among high school teams, and the questions were all related to marine science. Actually, it was kind of fun. Some of the kids had really studied. The teams were allowed to protest or challenge anything they thought went against the rules, and that is where I came in. We had two interesting challenges to settle. I enjoyed it, but our moderator, who was in the middle of each challenge, was taking the whole thing much too seriously. I hope the rest of her weekend went better.

That is, I hope she wasn’t a Steeler fan. The guys in black and gold lost a close one that they could have won, with just one or two fewer turnovers. Well, they made it to the big game, which is more than all but one other team can say. Next year.

A bright spot to Sunday was Mrs. Poolman’s effort at an appropriate Steeler Super Bowl meal. No wings or pizza for this meal. She made holubkys (also called golabkys).

Halubkys

These are a ground meat mixture, wrapped in cabbage leaves and cooked with kielbasa, sauerkraut and a tomato sauce. Very Pittsburgh. Very good. Mrs. P also says, “A bit of a pain in the a__.”

Next, I was off to Atlanta for a two-day business trip. I got a nice surprise when I checked into my usual Holiday Inn. I had been upgraded to a suite.

Ain't it suite?

Actually, it’s two adjoining regular rooms, but one of them is furnished as a “living room.” Not too shabby. I guess it’s a reward for my brand loyalty. It’s too bad I’m just here by myself and don’t have anyone to enjoy it with.

Tomorrow evening, I face the “little darlin’s” of my 5th grade CCD class. Last week, we really read them the riot act about their behavior. It worked. Then again, we had only eight kids in the class. Also, some of the kids with the attention span of goldfish were not there. We’ll see how it goes. Our subject matter this week is the Ten Commandments. Last year, it took two classes to get through the single chapter because there was just so many questions and discussion. It was a lot of fun. Fingers crossed. Maybe tomorrow will also be as good.

Bad science jokes

I’m not a scientist, but I do work in a research laboratory, and “The Big Bang Theory” is one of my favorite TV shows. Does that qualify me to post some weak science jokes? They were originally billed as “jokes for smart people.” Actually they are just bad jokes for people who know a few physics terms.

A neutron saunters up to the bar and orders a drink. “How much?” he asks. The bartender says, “For you, no charge.”

A superconductor walks into a abar. The bartender says, “We don’t serve your ind here.” The superconductor leaves without any resistance.

An atom walks into a bar, orders a beer, takes one sip and breaks down in tears. The bartender comes over and says, “Hey pal, what’s the matter?” The atom says, “I think I lost an electron.” Bartender says, “Are you sure?” Atom says, “I’m POSITIVE.”

Some helium floats into a bar. The bartender says, “Sorry, we don’t sere noble gases here.” The helium doesn’t react.

Ouch!

A fun ride!

One of the many things I really like about my job is that, from time to time, I get to do things fun or interesting. Research cruises or trips to isolated barrier islands are two examples. Yesterday, I had the opportunity to go along on a cool helicopter ride.

The science purpose of the helicopter was to observe a study looking at water flow through a salt marsh. A concentrated die was dumped into the water and then the flow of the dye was observed and measured.

Releasing the concentrated red dye.

The helicopter was a Robinson R-22.  It is a fairly small four-seater with the doors all off.

The ride.

As I sat in the back-right seat and looked past my shoulder, there was nothing but air. We climbed to 3,000 feet to get a wide view

Skidaway Island at the bottom and Wassaw Island on the horizon.

You can really see how the dye moves through the marsh.

and then zoomed down across the marsh at around 100 feet.

Part of the science team in a small boat.

All told, the flight was only around 25 minutes, but it sure made my day.

Today, it just another day in the office. Oh well, real life returns.

A day on the water

I had a quick turn around and was out the door early Thursday morning for a one-day research cruise on our ocean-going research vessel. I had not been out on a cruise in about a year, so it was time to get some fresh pictures for my files. This particular cruise was for a group of students from a local university.

Safety briefing -- including the survival "gumby suit"

For many of the kids, this was their first experience. For a few, it was their first time on a boat.

"Abandon ship drill." Fortunately we did not have to go through with it.

We went off shore for about 90 minutes and then came in the Savannah River and worked our way all the way to downtown Savannah. The offshore part was a bit of an eye opener for some. We didn’t expect rough seas, but we got it. We were bouncing around like a cork in a hurricane.  I took a motion sickness pill, but was still just a little green. I was pretty happy when we made our way north to the Savannah ship channel and things calmed down quite a bit. I think one poor kid thought he was going do die, and was afraid he wouldn’t. A handful of the kids just went below and curled up in a bunk for a couple of hours. Can’t say I blame them.

Deploying a conductivity-temperature-depth, water collection array

Recovering a plankton net

It was a long day. We got a back well after dark. But aside from fighting the “Gee I just want to go to sleep” after-effects of the motion sickness pill, it was a very good day.

Just before we pulled back to the dock

A burning question

I heard a news report earlier this week regarding the latest numbers on the spread of AIDS. Apparently, the disease is growing in the South faster than ever. It made me think of the whole issue in a way I hadn’t before.

Why are people in this country still contracting AIDS?

Or to put it another way, why is AIDS still considered to be a major health issue in the USA.

aids-ribbonMy question is restricted to the US.  Africa, as I understand it, has an entire different set of issues that I cannot begin to fathom.

When you step back and look at it, the spread of AIDS really doesn’t make a lot of sense. The disease is:

1. Really fairly difficult to contract. It doesn’t sneak up on you and catch you when you’re not looking. Unlike the current disease de jour, the H1N1 flu, you can’t catch it by having someone sneeze on you, by shaking hands, or even sharing a drink or cigarette. For the most part, a person has to engage in some specific activities to be in danger of contracting AIDS. According to the CDC’s statistics for new AIDS cases in 2007 (the most recent year I could find), four categories of activities accounted for 99% of the causes of transmission.

a.) Male to male sexual contact

b.) Injection drug use

c.) Male to male sexual contact AND injection drug use

d.) Heterosexual contact with a person known to have or be at high risk for HIV infection.

Hemophilia, blood transfusion and perinatal exposure add up to just 1% of the new cases.

Despite the best efforts of some “AIDS activists” over the past 25 years to portray AIDS as a disease that can strike anyone, that is clearly not the case.  As the numbers show, if you don’t engage in high-risk, unprotected sex or use IV drugs, you aren’t in serious risk.

2. It is relatively easy to prevent. Just using condoms for male-to-male or high-risk sex and  and staying away from  IV drugs would prevent nearly all new cases.

3. All this information is very well known. In the early to mid 1980s the argument could be made that the causes and prevention measures for AIDS were not well known. That was a quarter of a century ago. AIDS and HIV have probably received more air-time, column inches and outdoor advertising space than any other cause I can think of, with the possible exception of breast cancer with its massive PR machine. Is there anyone who is old enough to spell AIDS and use a TV remote control who doesn’t know how AIDS is spread and how to keep from contracting it?

What this means is for nearly all cases, contracting AIDS is not an accident, a random occurance or an “act of God.”  A person has to undertake some specific activities to contract AIDS. The victim acquires the disease because he or she decided the upside of participating in unprotected, high-risk sex and/or IV drug use outweighs the risk of contracting AIDS.

Don’t take this to mean that I don’t have sympathy for those who are suffering from this disease, especially the unsuspecting wife of a philandering husband or another segment of the 1%.  For most AIDS victims, I have the same sympathy I would have for someone with cancer or heart disease — actually, maybe slightly less. My sympathy for them would be more in line with a life-long smoker with lung cancer, the tremendously obese person with heart disease or the alcoholic with a failing liver.

So what can public health officials do to prevent people from undertaking short-sighted and self destructive actions? I certainly don’t know. Does anyone?

It’s all in the words

One of the fun things I do at work is to try to translate science into something that can be understood by the general public. This is often an interesting challenge. At the level I am dealing, the general scientific concepts aren’t usually that difficult, but the language is.

For example, I got a call yesterday from our local congressman’s office. They wanted to produce a news release from their office on a new National Science Foundation grant we have received. They needed a brief, “plain English” project description and quote. The title of the project –

“Collaborative Research: Does competition for nitrogen between autotrophs and heterotrophs control carbon fluxes in the western coastal Arctic?”

Right off the bat, I was in trouble. The single-spaced one-page project summary wasn’t a lot better. The issue was, as usual, with the language. What are autotrophs and heterotrophs? Actually the answer, it turns out, is simple. Autotrophs are organisms that utilize photosynthesis, aka plants. Heterotrophs are organisms that do not, aka animals. Why is this so difficult?

Actually, after some consultation and interpretation with my boss, I found the project is actually fairly interesting. It stems from the warming climate; the resulting loss of sea ice and increased river flows; and their effect on the basic food web in the Arctic Ocean.Arctic icebreaker Here is what I came up with for the congressman’s office.

Description: A warming climate is causing significant changes to the Arctic ecosystem, including reduced sea ice and increased river discharge. This research will investigate the cycling of nitrogen and carbon among the different components of the food web in the Arctic Ocean and especially the role of bacteria in that process.

Quote: “We are most appreciative to the National Science Foundation for funding this significant research. A warming climate is causing significant changes in the Arctic marine environment, including reduced sea ice and increased terrestrial discharge from rivers of nutrients such as carbon and nitrogen. It is very important that we understand the way these changes will affect food web dynamics and, ultimately, the entire Arctic marine ecosystem.”

I run into the same issue when I attend one of our fairly frequent science seminars here on campus. These are informal scientist-to-scientist “brown-bag” presentations that essentially break down to “Here is what I am working on these days.” I usually try to attend in the hope I might actually glean some bit of useful knowledge. Too often, I don’t understand a work the presenter is saying after he gives his name. Although, I later discovered I would probably understand more of the science, if I understood the acronyms and technical “shorthand” they usually use when communicating with peers.

I was walking out of one such program one day and expressed my frustration to one of our faculty scientists, who happens to be a chemist. I felt better when he said, “Heck, you’re not alone. I have a PhD, but it is in chemistry. That guy was a biologist and I don’t think I understood any more than you did.”

It’s nice to not be alone.