Tag Archives: Science

Set my turtle free!

I had the chance to go on a pretty neat science cruise the week after Thanksgiving.

It all started a couple of weeks earlier when I received a call from the director of the Tybee Island Marine Science Center. It seemed they had a loggerhead sea turtle that had outgrown her tank. Because of the cool beach water temperature, they wanted to release her into the Gulf Stream and asked if we could help. I explained that we were not in a position to donate a free sea day on our research vessel. The going rate on the R/V Savannah is around $10k/day. However, in the past, we have helped other groups with similar issues when we had room on board an already-scheduled cruise going to the same area.

As luck would have it, we did have a cruise to the Gulf Stream scheduled, and the scientist who “owned” the cruise graciously allowed the Tybee turtle and her entourage to “piggy back” along. As long as we were going, we also invited the team of four interns from the UGA Aquarium here on our campus, just to give them the experience of an overnight science cruise. I got to go along to shoot video, photos and to generally coordinate with the turtle team and the aquarium interns.

We left our dock at a little after 9 am Monday morning and cruised all day, doing some real science along the way, to our launch point, 82 miles off shore, arriving around 7:30 pm. The loggerhead was lowered over the side in a shrimp basket and, once in the water, she took off without as much as a wave good-bye.

Most of us went to bed fairly early while the crew turned the boat around and headed home. The ten-hour trip got us back to our dock around 6 am.

Here is a YouTube video of the release.

‘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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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 small victory

I scored one small victory last night. It comes on the heels of one of my biggest disappointments while on my current job.

Part of my job is to open lines of communication between the science we do and the general public. In the past, we have held public lecture series. The last series which we sponsored last fall was pretty much a dismal failure. For a variety of reasons, our attendance was miserable. Feeling a little burned, some of the people here, including myself, have been reluctant to get back on the horse and try again.

I decided to take a different tack. Rather than sponsoring a publicly advertised lecture series, we went with a smaller, more exclusive event. We targeted the roughly 240 families that are members of our foundation. We billed it as a special, “by invitation only” event, and sent out printed invitations to the membership. We asked for RSVP’s because “space is limited.” We also encouraged our members to bring their friends as “their guests.” We included a wine/beer/snacks reception.

Our program focused less on science, and more on adventure. The speaker, one of our scientists, has been doing a lot of work in the Arctic Ocean at Barrow, Alaska.

Apparently, it worked. We had 50 people respond and show up. That is right at our target figure. (We have crammed 100 people into our largest meeting room, but it was not pleasant.)

Everyone was happy. Yea! We’ll try another one in the fall and hope for similar or even better results.

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

Resolving science and religion for 5th graders

We had a good class with my band of 5th graders last night. We have about 16 in the CCD class (Catholic religious education for non-parochial school students), but we had significant absences. It was a rainy night. Maybe that was it.

Peter-Paul Rubens version of Adam and Eve

Peter-Paul Rubens version of Adam and Eve

This was one of my favorite chapters. We dealt with the Biblical account of Creation as described in the first chapter of Genesis, and what it means to us today. We especially focused on the difference between this account and what the students have learned or will learn in their science classes. We pointed out that some people do believe in the absolute literal version of Genesis, but that most people do not. As Catholics, we are not required to believe that Genesis is the literal and only acceptable account of Creation.

After a lot of discussion and questions, we concluded there really isn’t a serious conflict.

Genesis says that God created the world and it is good; modern science tells us how he did it.

This may sound an awfully lot like “intelligent design”, and I guess it is. However, we are teaching religion, not science.

This was our fifth class session. My co-teacher, Sue, and I are starting to get to know the kids and vice versa. The little darlin’s are actually staying engaged most of the time.

I think back to our first year teaching this grade and shudder. It was a rough group, and we weren’t necessarily very good teachers. I still don’t think we are very good now, but I think our experience has made us better than we were.

We try to make the class loose and interesting, with lots of interaction and discussion. Last year’s class was an absolute joy. When the season ended in the spring, we actually missed them. This year’s class has that potential.  I look forward to Wednesday nights, and that is good.

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.

Back to “booniestomping”

I was back out in the field again this morning taking more pictures of the same project that I was working on last week. This is a geology project. What they are trying to do is to “drill” out core samples of the marsh material to determine the depth of the earlier ice-age era marsh surface. Fun, huh?

This is what it looks like. (This was early in the day, so everyone is still fairly clean.)Vibracore 3

It’s called a Vibracore. That vertical pipe is 20 feet long and the device hooked to hit causes it to vibrate and slowly sink down into the marsh, collecting a core sample for later analysis.

I don’t mind going out and taking pictures. I was only out there for a couple of hours. I don’t envy the rest of the science crew who stayed out all day. It was hot, humid and buggy, and the labor was an awfully lot like work. As I indicated in an earlier post, the ground there is also about eight inches of sucking muck. I fell only once. I tried to take a step backward but the marsh muck wouldn’t let go of my foot. No damage. I was wearing a pair of rubberized overall-pants so my clothes actually stayed clean. One of the crew helped me up. (Placing your hands down to push yourself backup doesn’t work well. Your hands just sink to your elbows so you get no push-off. Also, your hands and arms are covered with the lovely, black, stinking muck, which is great when you have an expensive camera to operate. It’s always better if someone can give you a hand.)  I got to return the favor to the same crew member later. Nice to know I’m not the only klutz on he crew.

There was one cool thing I had never encountered before – snapping shrimp. (not my photo)Snapping ShrimpI didn’t see any, but I heard them. When you are quiet you can here them snapping. It’s a very audible popping sound all around you. Pretty neat.

Say “no” to the moon and Mars!

I was watching the news last night and I saw that President Obama took advantage of the 40th anniversary of the first moon landing to meet with the three Apollo 11 astronauts. They encouraged the President to endorse a program to send men to Mars. There are already preliminary plans to return to the moon by 2020, and now these guys, as well as others, want to keep going on to Mars. My reaction – “Are you out of your mind?”

Please understand, I grew up in the 1960’s and was fascinated by the space program. I remember sitting in class watching Alan Shepherd’s first launch on a small black and white TV. I followed the Mercury and Gemini programs religiously. When I was bored in school I would doodle pictures of astronauts on space walks in the margins of my notebooks.

Apollo 8 Dec 24, 1968

Apollo 8 Dec 24, 1968

I remember being moved at the Apollo 8 astronauts’ Christmas Eve 1968 telecast from lunar orbit where they read the Book of Genesis as the camera showed the Earth rising over the lunar horizon.

Apollo 11 Moonwalk

Apollo 11 Moonwalk

And I remember sitting with my family on the afternoon of Saturday, June 20, 1969, when we first heard Neil Armstrong’s dry, understated transmission, “Houston, Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed.”

I think space exploration is great, but it is a luxury, not a necessity. And it is simply a luxury we cannot afford. Space exploration costs enormous sums of money — tax money. It is money we don’t have. Didn’t we just borrow something like a trillion dollars from lenders like China and Saudi Arabia to bail out the Wall Street idiots who tried to send us into the next Great Depression? We have plenty of problems right here on Earth that will account for all our affordable and non-affordable tax dollars. These are issues that actually affect the lives of real human beings – health care, hunger, education, crumbling infrastructure, defense, and so on. Non-commercial space exploration has no tangible benefits except to those scientists, technicians and companies actually working on the projects.  It’s fun; it’s exciting; it’s inspiring;  but it is not necessary when we are borrowing to the hilt from other countries just to take care of the urgent needs.

I am not including commercial projects that pay their own way or defense projects that have their own justification in this. If it is necessary for defense or it is commercially funded, then go for it.

Compare it to a family budget. Expenses like defense and education are the national equivalent of buying the groceries and paying the rent. Space travel is like taking a vacation – fun, inspiring and exciting, but not necessary. It makes no sense for a family that is borrowing from their credit cards to pay for food and utilities to plan a European vacation. Likewise, it makes no sense for a nation that is up to its ears in debt and sinking deeper to spend massive amounts of money on space travel.

This may sound weird from someone who works in a scientific research laboratory. The issue is different. I’m not suggesting we shut down scientific research. That must continue. We simply do not know enough about any of the sciences to solve the current and future problems we do and will face. For better or worse, scientific research in this country is funded primarily by tax dollars. No matter how basic, or seemingly bizarre to the non scientist, most of that research will eventually have some affect on our world or the people in it – not so for extravagant space ventures.

We shouldn’t be planning an expensive European vacation until we can afford to pay for the utilities and groceries.