Tag Archives: popular science

America’s Plastic Legacy

AK Rockefeller via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

I type this on a plastic keyboard, my lunch leftovers stored in a plastic container, as my infant daughter sleeps nearby next to her plastic pacifier in a rocking sleeper made of plastic. Plastics are one of humanity’s most wide-reaching, versatile and practical inventions, an influential creation arguably on par with the smelting of metal, but these unnatural materials have levied high ecological costs. Plastic bits pollute the world’s oceans, beaches, and rivers. Plastics’ parent chemicals move through the food chain, from plankton to people, into our cells.

Is there a patch of planet earth untouched by plastics? At Aeon, Rebecca Altman visits New Jersey’s old Union Carbide plant, where her father used to work, and where modern petrochemical plastic was first manufactured. Through this father-daughter tour, she assess the worldwide legacy of petrochemistry, its origins, etymology and toxic ubiquity, and her dad talks about what he saw at the factory and how, for him, recycling is a form of redemption.

In the fall of 2012, before my father and I went to New Jersey, I visited the MIT archives. I had arranged for the librarians to find my grandfather’s theses. They were well-preserved, their black bindings so taut that they creaked when I opened them. As I read his work, I remembered his basement laboratory and how, when I was young, he had made me a set of test tubes. I’d watched as he blew bulbous ends onto slender glass tubing. I don’t remember what experiments we ran afterwards, but there were powders and liquids, scales and bottles, and shifting states and colors that seemed magical and otherworldly.

Until I read his research, I didn’t know he had experimented with corn as a feedstock. This is how I discovered that there was a time before oil, and that some industrialists of the 1930s and ’40s envisioned a radically different society, with plastics, paints and fuel for cars made from carbohydrates. But in the US by the close of the 1940s, oil had replaced both biomass and coal as the substrate for making the stuff of everyday life. Union Carbide had helped lead the conversion.

In the years since my grandfather walked these paths, all living organisms have absorbed the products of 20th century petrochemistry. We now embody its genius, its intellectual property, its mistakes, and its hubris. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has confirmed the presence of at least 200 (from a possible 80,000-100,000) industrial chemicals in Americans. And though we already have clear reason for concern about their role in human health, development and reproduction, not even the scientists know exactly what their combined presence means for our future.

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Despair All Ye Who Enter Into the Climate Change Fray

(jcrosemann / Getty)

A New York Magazine story on climate change is making the rounds on the internet, frequently being shared by people characterizing it as a “terrifying” “must-read.” “It is, I promise, worse than you think,” writes David Wallace-Wells, who goes on to tell his readers that even the most anxious among them are unaware of the terrors that are possible “even within the lifetime of a teenager today.”

What many readers seem to be overlooking is how frequently words like “may” appear in the text of Wallace-Wells’ article. “May” is in there seven times; “suggest” six times, “possible” and its variants a few more. Wallace-Wells is, of course, referencing the positions of scientists, whom he says have become extra cautious due to “climate denialism,” steering the public away from “speculative warnings” that could be debunked by future scientific progress, weakening their own case and giving weight to their opponents.

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‘Who Cares about Your Jetpack?’ On the Lack of Women Futurists

When we think about futurism, more often than not it’s robots and hoverboards that spring into our minds. Writing for the Atlantic, Rose Eveleth wonders if our limited vision of the future is a result of white, male geeks dominating the field. What questions would futurism ask were it to become more inclusive?

There are all sorts of firms and companies working to build robotic servants. Chrome butlers, chefs, and housekeepers. But the fantasy of having an indentured servant is a peculiar one to some. “That whole idea of creating robots that are in service to us has always bothered me,” says Nnedi Okorafor, a science fiction author. “I’ve always sided with the robots. That whole idea of creating these creatures that are human-like and then have them be in servitude to us, that is not my fantasy and I find it highly problematic that it would be anyone’s.”

Or take longevity, for example. The idea that people could, or even should, push to lengthen lifespans as far as possible is popular. The life-extension movement, with Aubrey de Gray as one (very bearded) spokesman, has raised millions of dollars to investigate how to extend the lifespan of humans. But this is arguably only an ideal future if you’re in as a comfortable position as his. “Living forever only works if you’re a rich vampire from an Anne Rice novel, which is to say that you have compound interest,” jokes [futurist Madeline] Ashby.

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An Italian inventor may have created a machine that can generate so much cheap energy, it would put oil companies out of business. Or it all may be a spectacular scam:

On the last day of the conference, Dennis Bushnell, chief scientist at Langley Research Center, summed up the state of LENR research. Guys like Rossi play a crucial role, for better or for worse. ‘This will go directly from the garage, the Edisonian experiments, to market, bypassing the science and the rigorous engineering research,’ Bushnell said. ‘And there are major investors ready to move on this—an amazing number—given a credible third-party seal of approval. I mean, this can move fast. If we ever get a credible assessment in the kilowatt range’—one kilowatt will power ten 100-watt lightbulbs—’the world changes overnight.’ Bushnell paused and took a sip of water. ‘We have so screwed up this planet,’ he said, raising his voice. ‘This is one of the few things I know of that’s capable for atoning for our sins.’

To my astonishment, after three days of asking every cold-fusion researcher in the house, I couldn’t find a single person willing to call Rossi a con man. The consensus was that he had something, even if he didn’t understand why it worked or how to control it. The more I learned, the more confused I became. Could Rossi actually have something real? The only way to know for sure was to go to Italy.

“Can Andrea Rossi’s Infinite-Energy Black Box Power The World—Or Just Scam It?” — Steve Featherstone, Popular Science

Excerpt from the new book Spillover, on understanding the threat of RNA viruses like Marburg, Ebola, West Nile and SARS—and how humans can help contain them:

During the early 20th century, disease scientists from the Rockefeller Foundation and other institutions conceived the ambitious goal of eradicating some infectious diseases entirely. They tried hard with yellow fever, spending millions of dollars and many years of effort, and failed. They tried with malaria and failed. They tried later with smallpox and succeeded. Why? The differences among those three diseases are many and complex, but probably the most crucial one is that smallpox resided neither in a reservoir host nor in a vector, such as a mosquito or tick. Its ecology was simple. It existed in humans—in humans only—and was therefore much easier to eradicate. The campaign to eradicate polio, begun in 1998 by WHO and other institutions, is a realistic effort for the same reason: Polio isn’t zoonotic. Eradicating a zoonotic disease, whether a directly transmitted one like Ebola or an insect-vectored one such as yellow fever, is much more complicated. Do you exterminate the pathogen by exterminating the species of bat or primate or mosquito in which it resides? Not easily, you don’t, and not without raising an outcry. The notion of eradicating chimpanzees as a step toward preventing the future spillover of another HIV would provoke a deep and bitter discussion, to put it mildly.

That’s the salubrious thing about zoonotic diseases: They remind us, as St. Francis did, that we humans are inseparable from the natural world. In fact, there is no ‘natural world,’ it’s a bad and artificial phrase.

“Where Will The Next Pandemic Come From? And How Can We Stop It?” — David Quammen, Popular Science

More from Popular Science

Life on the job with a team of nuclear divers. As nuclear power plants age, they require more upkeep—and much of that work can happen underwater:

Last March, a tsunami hit Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, leading to a disastrous series of reactor meltdowns. The consequences were immediate. Germany vowed to phase out nuclear power, and other countries spoke of following suit. In the U.S., the nuclear-energy renaissance was left suspended in time. But even as its future remains uncertain, nuclear energy remains an indisputable part of our present. And as our power plants continue aging with no viable replacements, the challenges facing the nuclear industry will only continue to grow. So will the potential for another disaster. The threat of radiation poisoning hangs over everyone who works at or lives near a nuclear plant, but no one more than the divers, who literally swim in the stuff.

“Swimming on the Hot Side.” — David Goodwillie, Popular Science

See also: “The Unsung Hero of the Nuclear Age.” Ron Ronsenbaum, Slate, Feb. 28, 2011

For years, doctors attempted to create artificial hearts that mimicked the real heart—using methods that recreate blood pumping. Billy Cohn and Bud Frazier instead developed a continuous-flow device that has worked on calves and some humans, including patient Rahel Elmer Reger:

The little quilted backpack held two lithium-ion batteries and the HeartMate II’s computerized controller, which are connected by cable through a hole in Reger’s side. Needless to say, she has never left her backpack on a bus. “My cousin once disconnected me, though, by mistake,” she said. “I was showing her how to change the battery. She disconnected one, and then—I was distracted for a second—the other. I yelled, ‘You can’t do that!’ and then passed out. The device blares at you. She reconnected it, and I came back. I was probably out for 10 seconds. She was completely freaked out.”

“No Pulse: How Doctors Reinvented The Human Heart.” — Dan Baum, Popular Science

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What happens when your teenage son is obsessed with nuclear research and wants to experiment in the backyard? How 17-year-old Taylor Wilson found support from his family and a group of scientist mentors:

Kenneth and Tiffany agreed to let Taylor assemble a “survey of everyday radioactive materials” for his school’s science fair. Kenneth borrowed a Geiger counter from a friend at Texarkana’s emergency-management agency. Over the next few weekends, he and Tiffany shuttled Taylor around to nearby antique stores, where he pointed the clicking detector at old radium-dial alarm clocks, thorium lantern mantles and uranium-glazed Fiesta plates. Taylor spent his allowance money on a radioactive dining set.

Drawn in by what he calls ‘the surprise properties’ of radioactive materials, he wanted to know more. How can a speck of metal the size of a grain of salt put out such tremendous amounts of energy? Why do certain rocks expose film? Why does one isotope decay away in a millionth of a second while another has a half-life of two million years?

“The Boy Who Played With Fusion.” — Tom Clynes, Popular Science

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“This should have been Felisa Wolfe-Simon’s moment in the sun. But within days, researchers began to question Wolfe-Simon’s methodology and conclusions. Many of them cast aside traditions of measured commentary in peer reviewed periodicals and voiced their criticism directly on blogs and Twitter. Then, as the conflict spilled into the mainstream, the scientific community witnessed something few would have predicted: meaningful public engagement over a serious scientific issue.”

“Scientist in a Strange Land.” — Tom Clynes, Popular Science [Not single-page] 

See more #longreads from Popular Science