Category Archives: science

Less than zero

So some states are double counting their water supplies which you now, leads to problems like they are having now.

Yet California and Arizona — the two states water experts say are facing the most severe water crises — continue to count and regulate groundwater and surface water as if they were entirely separate.

“States have their own take on this. Or they choose to not address it at all,” said Stanley Leake, a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and a leading expert on properly accounting for the connection between ground and surface waters in the West. “In some cases they pretend that there is no connection.”

Leaders in California and Arizona acknowledge that their states have done this, at least in part to avoid the grim reckoning that emanates from doing the math accurately. There is even less water available than residents have been led to believe.

If these states stopped effectively double-counting their resources, they would have to change laws, upend traditional water rights and likely force farmers and cities to accept even more dramatic cuts than they already face — a political third rail.

“The politics of water are more challenging than any other issue the state faces,” said Fran Pavley, a California state senator who helped draft a much-praised package of state laws passed last year regulating groundwater withdrawals for the first time.

Tucked into Pavley’s package was a little-noticed provision that explicitly prohibits California state regulators from addressing the interconnection between groundwater and surface water in local water plans until 2025, a compromise meant to give local water agencies a leisurely runway to adjust to a new way of counting.

Pavley said the prospect of more immediately acknowledging the overlap between ground and surface waters threatened to derail the legislation entirely, triggering fierce opposition from the Agricultural Council of California, the California Chamber of Commerce and other industry groups.

So politics is getting in the way of science.  Basically by draining rivers, you drain aquifers.  By draining aquifers, you cause rivers to dry up.

The West has consumed these resources ravenously, as if they were bottomless. By 1965, scientists measured that parts of the aquifer beneath Las Vegas had dropped by more than 75 feet. Arizona officials estimated the state’s aquifers had dropped by as much as 500 feet by 1980. By 2004, USGS scientists estimated — based on modeling — that the region south of Denver had drawn down water levels by more than 900 vertical feet.

In some places, so much water has been drained from underground, the effects can be seen with the naked eye. A USGS scientist’s 1977 photograph near the town of Mendota in central California uses a telephone pole to show how the ground had effectively collapsed, sinking some 30 feet.

Anyone who recognized these telltale signs would worry that the West’s groundwater was approaching a state of crisis. But even as the drought began and then worsened, with surface water vanishing, the West dug in and doubled down — replacing dwindling reservoirs with new water pumped from underground.

Today, the Colorado River states consume more than 21 billion gallons of groundwater each day — adding up to 1 1/2 times the flow of the Colorado River itself each year.

In 2009, Jay Famiglietti, now a scientist researching underground water in partnership with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, set out to quantify just how much groundwater had been lost over time.

NASA had a pair of satellites that gathered data on subtle changes in the Earth’s mass by measuring almost indiscernible shifts in gravitational forces during orbit. Famiglietti and his team of doctoral students at the University of California Irvine, where he also teaches, thought they could tease out which parts of those gravitational shifts were due to a changing volume of water inside the Earth’s crust.

The team determined that aquifers were shrinking at an astonishing rate in Asia, North Africa and across the globe. The western United States stood out.

“It was among the worst in the world,” Famiglietti said. “The rate of decline is much steeper than the rate of decline of the reservoirs. While everyone is looking at the surface water, no one is looking at the groundwater, and it’s disappearing at a rapid clip.”

Famiglietti and his team determined that some 13 trillion gallons of water had been lost from underground reservoirs in the Colorado River basin since the NASA satellites began collecting data in late 2004. To put that figure in perspective, it’s nearly 1 1/2 times the total capacity of Lake Mead — the nation’s largest reservoir and the West’s most important — and as much water as the state of Arizona uses in six years.

The research suggested the seven-state Colorado River basin region was actually using about one-third more water each year than its river budget alone allowed. In separate research Famiglietti looked at California’s aquifers — which lay outside the Colorado River basin — and found that they had also been severely diminished, having dropped by about 7 trillion gallons since just 2011.

The U.S. is screwed.  Of course those aquifers also come into western Canada so it’s going to have an impact on all of us.


So you remember earlier this winter when I was super sick for a couple of months?  Yeah that was fun.  

The doctor gave me a powerful antibiotic to kill what it was that was killing me.  It was so powerful they were worried about the side effects as it could actually induce some severe intestinal issues from killing too much bacteria in my stomach.  It could basically bring on Crohn’s disease.  

Since I had lost the ability to breath, it seemed like a not bad risk to take.  The antibiotics worked, no Crohn’s disease.  It seems like I survived.

Shortly afterwords, I was out walking in City Park.  You know the neighbourhood that refuses to clean their sidewalks.  I slipped slightly on the ice and hurt my ankle.  I shook it off (Well more like “Shake it Off” by Taylor Swift) and kept walking.  It didn’t seem that bad until the next day when I woke up and my ankle was the size of a small nation.  

I was like, I couldn’t have broken it but then I realized that something was really wrong with my ankle.  So yes, I cracked my ankle.  Of course days later it was even bigger.  It was growing like the Saskatchewan debt under the Sask Party. (oh calm down, I take shots at the NDP and Liberals as well, the debt joke was there and my ankle really hurts).

After more consultations with a doctor, I found out that it is severe tendonitis.  Apparently use of the antibiotic I took has a connection to triggering it in diabetics which is kind of crazy. 

The end result has been unbelievable pain for weeks and it isn’t really going away.  My ankle seems to do much better over night and in the morning, it feels okay.  Then by night, it is horribly painful again.    The treatment that has been suggested is a cortisone shot which isn’t really effective but can also long term damage to my blood sugar.  

It took over two years for my one shoulder to recover from what is called frozen shoulder (tendonitis in the shoulder).  I am not looking forward to this.

Future US megadroughts set to be the worst in 1,000 years

I believe Thomas Homer-Dixon was talking about this a decade ago.

“These future droughts are not only going to be bad compared to what we’ve experienced over the historical period, but also really bad compared to the past millennium,” says Benjamin Cook, a drought researcher at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City, who led the work. “It’s going to be a pretty much fundamental shift.”

Much of North America has a long and detailed climate history, thanks to tree rings that preserve records of temperature and rainfall. Many scientists have used these to piece together the story of decades-long droughts, like one that gripped the US Southwest in the thirteenth century and probably contributed to the disappearance of ancient Pueblo peoples. Others have used global climate models to study the region’s future, and found that it may already be transitioning to a fundamentally drier state.

Cook’s team aimed to bridge past and present. The scientists compared 1,000 years of North American climate history with future projections from 17 different climate models — “as many as we could get our hands on that gave us the data we needed”, Cook says.

Among other metrics, the researchers looked at a measure known as the Palmer Drought Severity Index, which is an indicator of soil moisture. Some scientists criticize the Palmer index because it can overestimate future drying if it is calculated on the basis of temperature projections alone. To get around this problem, Cook’s team used a different method of calculating the index, one that incorporates humidity and energy from sunlight.

Kevin Anchukaitis, a palaeoclimatologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, says that the revised method gives a much more accurate projection of how dry things will really get. “This is the first convincing demonstration I’ve seen that it is both possible to seamlessly connect past, present and future, and to then be confident that they are on comparable scales,” he says.

Human activity has pushed Earth beyond four of nine ‘planetary boundaries’

Uh oh

At the rate things are going, the Earth in the coming decades could cease to be a “safe operating space” for human beings. That is the conclusion of a new paper published Thursday in the journal Science by 18 researchers trying to gauge the breaking points in the natural world.

The paper contends that we have already crossed four “planetary boundaries.” They are the extinction rate; deforestation; the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; and the flow of nitrogen and phosphorous (used on land as fertilizer) into the ocean.

“What the science has shown is that human activities — economic growth, technology, consumption — are destabilizing the global environment,” said Will Steffen, who holds appointments at the Australian National University and the Stockholm Resilience Center and is the lead author of the paper.

These are not future problems, but rather urgent matters, according to Steffen, who said that the economic boom since 1950 and the globalized economy have accelerated the transgression of the boundaries. No one knows exactly when push will come to shove, but he said the possible destabilization of the “Earth System” as a whole could occur in a time frame of “decades out to a century.”

The researchers focused on nine separate planetary boundaries first identified by scientists in a 2009 paper. These boundaries set theoretical limits on changes to the environment, and include ozone depletion, freshwater use, ocean acidification, atmospheric aerosol pollution and the introduction of exotic chemicals and modified organisms.

Beyond each planetary boundary is a “zone of uncertainty.” This zone is meant to acknowledge the inherent uncertainties in the calculations, and to offer decision-makers a bit of a buffer, so that they can potentially take action before it’s too late to make a difference. Beyond that zone of uncertainty is the unknown — planetary conditions unfamiliar to us.

“The boundary is not like the edge of the cliff,” said Ray Pierrehumbert, an expert on Earth systems at the University of Chicago. “They’re a little bit more like danger warnings, like high-temperature gauges on your car.”

Jim Watson throws a fit

Jim Watson sells his Nobel Prize in his most recent lack of good judgement

In a fit of pique and self-pity, Watson is selling his Nobel Prize medallion. He will become the first Nobel laureate in history to do so. He gave the Financial Times several reasons why, this Thursday, he will auction off the gold disk, symbol of the highest honor in science (expected price: up to $3.5 million). He claims that, even though he ran major research institutions and served on corporate boards until the age of 79, he needs the money. He might donate it to universities, he said, or buy a David Hockney painting. Oh, and he also mentioned to the FT that he’s selling the medal because he has become an “unperson,” and “no one really wants to admit I exist.”

This is not about the Hockney. Selling the medal is Watson’s way of sticking his tongue out at the scientific establishment, which has largely shunned him since 2007. Watson had been making racist and sexist remarks throughout his career, but he really outdid himself seven years ago when he told the Sunday Times that he was “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours—whereas all the testing says not really.” He further said that while we may wish intelligence to be equal across races, “people who have to deal with black employees find this not true.”

How our shopping habits cause asthma in California children

Here is the story of how globalization is ruining the health of California children

The community that epitomizes the pollution warehouses can bring is Mira Loma.“Our quality of life is in the tubes,” said Gene Proctor, 73, who has lived in Mira Loma Village for 43 years. “I wish people shopping in Tucson, Arizona, in other places, I wish they could see the little kids around here, their respiratory problems.” His great-granddaughter has asthma, and his 3-year-old great-grandson, he said, “coughs like a smoker.”

Population 21,000, Mira Loma is so small and poor it doesn’t have a movie theater, a community center, or even a moderately upscale restaurant. What it does have are 90 warehouses and a whole lot of big rigs: Trucks rumble through 15,000 times every day. In just half an hour on a recent afternoon, 269 trucks passed by the big plate glass window in the front of the Farmer Boys truck stop on Etiwanda Avenue.

That is more than one every seven seconds.

Avol, the professor at the USC Keck School of Medicine, began visiting the town in the early 1990s as part of a study of air pollution and children’s health across Southern California. Back then, he said, researchers chose Mira Loma because it sits at the “end of the tailpipe” of the Los Angeles basin, meaning the prevailing winds off the Pacific Ocean blow L.A.’s infamous smog east until much of it arrives in Mira Loma. So it was rural yet had a lot of ozone and smog. Other places in the study, such as Santa Barbara and Long Beach, were picked because they were thought to boast clean air or because they were in industrial areas.

When the study began, Mira Loma residents complained to researchers about the smell of dairy cows, herds of which clustered on vast pastures and cow yards. But in 1987, Riverside county supervisors revamped the general plan for Mira Loma, clearing the way for massive warehouse development.
“In the course of a few years, the dairies disappeared,” and what had been “open pasture became streets and warehouses, lined with trucks,” Avol said. “Mira Loma turned out to be a very interesting place to study.”

The trucks made the already bad air worse, bringing in diesel particulates, very small particles that can enter the lungs and travel to tissues throughout the body. They are associated with asthma, heart disease, neurological problems, and cancer.

In Mira Loma, children were found to be growing up with stunted lungs compared with children living in places with better air. Their lungs were growing at a rate that was 1 to 1.5% slower, Avol said, so that “after their teen years, they were about 10 to 12% lower in lung function than children who had grown up in cleaner places.”

He added: “We have no information at this point that supports the idea that they ever catch up.”

Studies from other Inland Empire communities are also dire. In a neighborhood near the BNSF rail yard in the city of San Bernardino, Loma Linda University researchers found that adults have more respiratory problems, and children alarmingly high rates of asthma, even when compared with other polluted communities.

Why Greenland’s black ice should terrify you

From Slate

There are several potential explanations for what’s going on here. The most likely is that some combination of increasingly infrequent summer snowstorms, wind-blown dust, microbial activity, and forest fire soot led to this year’s exceptionally dark ice. A more ominous possibility is that what we’re seeing is the start of a cascading feedback loop tied to global warming.

Box mentions this summer’s mysterious Siberian holes and offshore methane bubbles as evidence that the Arctic can quickly change in unpredictable ways.

This year, Greenland’s ice sheet was the darkest Box (or anyone else) has ever measured. Box gives the stunning stats: “In 2014 the ice sheet is precisely 5.6 percent darker, producing an additional absorption of energy equivalent with roughly twice the US annual electricity consumption.”

Perhaps coincidentally, 2014 will also be the year with the highest number of forest fires ever measured in Arctic.

Box ran these numbers exclusively for Slate, and what he found shocked him. Since comprehensive satellite measurements began in 2000, never before have Arctic wildfires been as powerful as this year. In fact, over the last two or three years, Box calculated that Arctic fires have been burning at a rate that’s double that of just a decade ago. Box felt this finding was so important that he didn’t want to wait for peer review, and instead decided to publish first on Slate. He’s planning on submitting these and other recent findings to a formal scientific journal later this year.

From the CBC

Japan earthquake has raised pressure below Mount Fuji, says new study

Geological disturbances caused by 2011 tremors mean active volcano is in a ‘critical state’, say scientific researchers

So should Japan be on red alert? “We cannot establish a direct relation of cause and effect between quakes and volcanic eruptions, even if statistically the former lead to an increase in the latter,” Brenguier says. “All we can say is that Mount Fuji is now in a state of pressure, which means it displays a high potential for eruption. The risk is clearly higher.”

Science, however, has no way of predicting when this might happen. But there is a precedent. The last eruption of Mount Fuji occurred in 1707. It projected almost a billion cubic metres of ash and debris into the atmosphere, some of which reached Tokyo (then called Edo) 100km away. It was preceded, 49 days earlier, by a magnitude 8.7 quake to the south of Japan that, in conjunction with the tidal wave it raised, claimed more than 5,000 lives. This time, more than three years have already passed since the Tohoku quake. But that does not mean that Mount Fuji, under the constant supervision of Japanese geologists, is slumbering.

Come what may, the method developed by the Franco-Japanese team for investigating volcanic areas should improve the accuracy of efforts all over the world to assess the risk of major volcanic eruptions.

So if there is intelligent life out there, why hasn’t anyone contacted us

It could be we are in a remote part of space that no one cares about.  We are the Moose Jaw of planets.

The Americas may have been colonized by Europeans long before anyone in a small Inuit tribe in far northern Canada realized it had happened. There could be an urbanization component to the interstellar dwellings of higher species, in which all the neighboring solar systems in a certain area are colonized and in communication, and it would be impractical and purposeless for anyone to deal with coming all the way out to the random part of the spiral where we live.

There are a lot of interesting hypothesis of why we haven’t had our first contact.  The following is the scariest.

There are scary predator civilizations out there, and most intelligent life knows better than to broadcast any outgoing signals and advertise their location.

This is an unpleasant concept and would help explain the lack of any signals being received by the SETI satellites. It also means that we might be the super naive newbies who are being unbelievably stupid and risky by ever broadcasting outward signals. There’s a debate going on currently about whether we should engage in METI (Messaging to Extraterrestrial Intelligence—the reverse of SETI) or not, and most people say we should not. Stephen Hawking warns, “If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans.” Even Carl Sagan (a general believer that any civilization advanced enough for interstellar travel would be altruistic, not hostile) called the practice of METI “deeply unwise and immature,” and recommended that “the newest children in a strange and uncertain cosmos should listen quietly for a long time, patiently learning about the universe and comparing notes, before shouting into an unknown jungle that we do not understand.” Scary.

Why We Don’t Like Stories in Which the Mentally Ill Heroine Recovers

Basically people who recover undermine how psychiatry is practiced now.

The story of modern psychiatry, for many, is triumphant one. The quick-and-dirty history goes like this: Human ingenuity and scientific advances led us from the dark ages of hydrotherapy and solitary confinement to cognitive-behavioral therapy and expertly prescribed medications. While we used to believe the mentally ill were unwell as a result of wayward behavior or demonic possession, we now know that psychic anguish is the result of brain chemistry and nurture, and we’re working harder to analyze the former. We moved, in other words, from mental illness as a moral failure to mental illness as a medical condition.

But if you zoom in on the late 1940s through the early ’60s, a different battle is being waged—a battle between those who believed mental illness was biologically located in the brain, and those who thought mental illness was a matter of emotional disturbance. Back then, those intent upon transforming psychiatry into a reputable science (as opposed to a touchy-feely art) worked tirelessly to develop new methods of medical intervention for the mentally ill. The best-known method was “psychosurgery” (aka lobotomy), which was introduced by neurologist Egas Moniz in 1936. In 1949, Moniz won the Nobel Prize for his work on psychosurgery, and by 1951, the operation had been performed close to 20,000 times.1
Contrast this obsession with the physical brain—slicing it, shocking it, or tranquilizing it—with the ethos held by Chestnut Lodge, the elite private institution where Joanne Greenberg began treatment in 1948. The clinicians at Chestnut Lodge fervently believed that no patient, however psychotic, was impervious to psychotherapy. The champion of this viewpoint was the Lodge’s most famous employee, the gifted psychoanalyst Frieda Fromm-Reichmann. Fromm-Reichmann was Greenberg’s primary analyst and, in both the novel and in real life, led her from insanity to wellness. In the book, Fromm-Reichmann is “Dr. Fried,” and Greenberg so positively depicted the humble German that for years she received letters from struggling fans desperate to track down Dr. Fried and undergo analysis with her. 

Fromm-Reichmann immediately recognized something special in her teenaged patient: Greenberg was quick-witted, well-read, and seemed to retain an appetite for life that many of the doctor’s older, chronically ill patients had lost long ago. Greenberg’s symptoms were often referred to as “florid”—interpretable, extravagant, and suffused with meaning, like a story. When Joanne was struggling, Fromm-Reichmann openly empathized. When she began to retreat, the doctor begged to follow. “Take me along with you,” Dr. Fried tells Deborah during a session. She insisted to her young patient that they must pose a united front. “I believe that you and I,” Greenberg has her say in Rose Garden, “can beat this thing.” And, together, that’s just what they did.

This narrative is a little too pat for our contemporary sensibilities. Perhaps that’s why the book is not as well known as, say, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. (The Bell Jar still sells briskly; the fiftieth-anniversary paperback edition is ranked 1,730 on Amazon, compared to Rose Garden’s 21,792.2) But Rose Garden does not appeal for another reason: It’s easier to think of the psychiatry of yore as entirely backward and as the poetic casualties of it—Plath, Arbus, Sexton—as victims of that ignorance. Their tragic stories, paradoxically, make us feel more secure in the march of psychiatric progress.

The demise of these women—and the subsequent autopsy of past mental healthcare failures that their paper trails encourages—permits us to rest serenely in the knowledge that the world is moving steadily toward a more scientific, humane psychiatry. But, one has to wonder if this is entirely the case. Frieda Fromm-Reichmann spent four years with Joanne Greenberg; she hiked up to the Disturbed Ward to see patients when they were lying limp in restraints. Now, psychiatrists evaluate patients for 45 minutes before diagnosing them and sending them off to fill prescriptions, and many patients go months between appointments. Efficiency is the goal here; medication the cure, meaningful human connection a distant second priority. It is increasingly rare to find a psychiatrist who also performs talk therapy, despite its many proven benefits.

This might be an even greater tragedy with regard to treatment of schizophrenia, where holistic treatment—that is, one that recognizes both the medical and the emotional components and allows for feedback between the two—might hold particular promise. According to Dr. Allen J. Frances of Duke Medical School and the author of Saving Normal: An Insider’s Revolt Against Out-of-Control Psychiatric Diagnosis, DSM-5, Big Pharma, and the Medicalization of Ordinary Life, “Cognitive therapy and social skills therapy are very valuable in treating schizophrenia, but they are rarely available.” And the idea of “complete recovery” is downplayed.

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know that my wife Wendy has struggled with depression for most of her life.   As she has written about before, like many others, she was sexually abused for an extended period growing up and it took a toll on her as she has grown older. It has never gone away and returns with a vengeance each and every summer and causes chaos and pain around here until fall.

This is the process we have to go through to get help.

She needs to go to her family doctor who prescribes depression medication and then writes a referral to the psychiatrist.  Since that is a year to two year wait, she goes back to her family doctor who ups her medication, ups it again, ups it again and then realizes it doesn’t work.  So then she is weaned off her medication and then the doctor does it again.  If that doesn’t work.  Repeat.

Finally she gets to see the psychiatrist (18 months later), she walks in, explains her situation, he tells her she has PTSD and then gives her a prescription for a stronger medication.  Out in 10 minutes.  

That medication may or may not work.  If not, she can go back and is back out in five minutes with a new prescription.  If it does work, it works for about 8 months and then when she tries to go back, she is told that her file is closed.  She needs another referral (and a year wait).

That is what is covered by Saskatchewan Health.  What she really needs is talk therapy as well which is not covered by Saskatchewan Health and runs over $100 a session.   Since it isn’t part of her health care or any kind of continuum of care, the therapist and psychiatrist don’t talk which means that once summer went spent thousands on therapy that did nothing because Wendy’s medication was off.

What we are told is that Wendy’s condition will be with her for the rest of her life and she just needs to keep taking her medication.  In some ways that may be correct but the reality is that it doesn’t have to be as bad as it is or as costly if we spent the resources to treat mental illness like we do other illnesses.  I think that is what makes people so uncomfortable, we know we can do better but do not because of a shortage of psychiatrists and clinical psychologists in our system.  Heck we don’t even benchmark mental illness treatment in Saskatchewan.  How do we hope to get better when we don’t define success?

It’s been a frustrating process to see Wendy struggle like this.  Her public presence like many is far different then her private one and I have been more than willing to move to get her treatment.  We have explored selling the house and our stuff and moving south to the United States but the equity in our house won’t touch long term treatment costs.  So like a lot of families and people who struggle with depression, we stay and try our best to work in the cycle of madness and fight the assumption that mental illness can’t he cured.

The slow death of the US space program

This is a must read on the slow decline of the US Space program and NASA

The failure by the American government to prepare for the shuttle’s inevitable retirement, and to articulate a plan for what was to come next, is for Chris Kraft an unmitigated disaster.

He just might know. As America’s first flight director, he is the man for whom mission control is named.

During his nine decades Chris Kraft has observed the entire arc of U.S. and Russian history in space, from the early days of desperately trying to catch the Soviets in space, to beating them to the moon, to now hitching rides to the space station on Russian capsules and being threatened by Russian officials.

“The cancellation of the space shuttle may be the biggest blunder ever made by the United States,” Kraft said. “It’s fairly obvious that no one in the government thought through what they were about to bring about when they made that decision.”

Kraft isn’t alone. A Houston scientist who studies the moon, Paul Spudis, served on a Presidential Commission tasked with implementing President Bush’s vision in 2004. What has happened since then, he said, is appalling.

“I’ve never seen such a screwed up mess in my life as the way NASA is right now,” he said.

Why do you wake up before your alarm?

Your body clock alarm is just as accurate as the one on your phone: your body naturally takes note of what time you want to wake up and wakes you up.

There’s evidence you can will yourself to wake on time, too. Sleep scientists at Germany’s University of Lubeck asked 15 volunteers to sleep in their lab for three nights. One night, the group was told they’d be woken at 6 a.m., while on other nights the group was told they’d be woken at 9 a.m..

But the researchers lied-they woke the volunteers at 6 a.m anyway. And the results were startling. The days when sleepers were told they’d wake up early, their stress hormones increased at 4:30 a.m., as if they were anticipating an early morning. When the sleepers were told they’d wake up at 9 a.m., their stress hormones didn’t increase — and they woke up groggier. “Our bodies, in other words, note the time we hope to begin our day and gradually prepare us for consciousness,” writes Jeff Howe at Psychology Today.

Silencing Scientists

An editorial in the New York Times this weekend

Over the last few years, the government of Canada — led by Stephen Harper — has made it harder and harder for publicly financed scientists to communicate with the public and with other scientists.

It began badly enough in 2008 when scientists working for Environment Canada, the federal agency, were told to refer all queries to departmental communications officers. Now the government is doing all it can to monitor and restrict the flow of scientific information, especially concerning research into climate change, fisheries and anything to do with the Alberta tar sands — source of the diluted bitumen that would flow through the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. Journalists find themselves unable to reach government scientists; the scientists themselves have organized public protests.

There was trouble of this kind here in the George W. Bush years, when scientists were asked to toe the party line on climate policy and endangered species. But nothing came close to what is being done in Canada.

Science is the gathering of hypotheses and the endless testing of them. It involves checking and double-checking, self-criticism and a willingness to overturn even fundamental assumptions if they prove to be wrong. But none of this can happen without open communication among scientists. This is more than an attack on academic freedom. It is an attempt to guarantee public ignorance.

It is also designed to make sure that nothing gets in the way of the northern resource rush — the feverish effort to mine the earth and the ocean with little regard for environmental consequences. The Harper policy seems designed to make sure that the tar sands project proceeds quietly, with no surprises, no bad news, no alarms from government scientists. To all the other kinds of pollution the tar sands will yield, we must now add another: the degradation of vital streams of research and information.

The Last Great Telescope

The Green Bank Telescope (GBT) is the world’s largest fully steerable radio telescope and the world’s largest land-based movable structure. It is part of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) site at Green Bank, West Virginia, USA. NRAO is located in the National Radio Quiet Zone, a 13,000 mile zone where all radio transmissions are either limited or banned outright, to help the telescope function properly. With the growing popularity of radio-array telescopes, the GBT may end up being the last single-dish telescope of its kind built in the world.