Sunday, May 30, 2010

Lord, BP, what have you done!?

Photo by Rick Loomis /
Los Angeles Times

   As of today, (May 31, 2010), crude oil from BP's ocean well explosion has been spewing into the Gulf of Mexico for 41 days. Since the "Top Kill" plan to dump heavy mud and concrete into the well failed to stop the oil from gushing out, it seems this disaster will continue to grow in magnitude for an indefinite amount of time.

   Here are some composite satellite images from NASA:

   And here's a live-feed link from a remotely-operated vehicle at the the site of the well:

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Return from the Gulf

My favorite place on Earth: Pier One at the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory sunburn is gone! The laundry is washing, my cat is fed, and there are clean sheets on my bed. I am back from a week-long visit to the Gulf Coast. My school offers a summer speed-course called "Coastal Ecology" for biology majors. It is a wonderful alternative to our traditional, computer-based, heavy-into-statistics ecology course.
   The coastal class is only three weeks long, and the field portion is held at the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory (GCRL) in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. My school has had a partnership with the GCRL for many, many years, and we usually bring a group of 10 to 15 students down each summer.
   One of the highlights of the trip is the venture to Horn Island, a pristine wildlife sanctuary that boasts white sand and beautiful beaches. No man-made structures whatsoever. It only takes a little more than an hour to motor out to the island, then we usually spend a few hours on the island, and we troll on the way home (8 hours in the water-reflected sun - hence the sunburn.) This time, there was a snafu with our packed lunches, but the Larry-the-ever-awesome-captain ran to the store to get us fruit, drinks, and sandwich items. I asked for coffee, and Larry explained that the boat's generator was out, so he couldn't make any. Then he promptly got a cup and poured me some coffee from his own mug. I've never met anyone that nice.
   During the trip, I asked Larry if I could get a picture with him. He not only complied, but he handed me the wheel! I guided the Hermes up the channel, listening to Larry and the first mate as they told me which poles to stay between. After a few minutes, I saw a dolphin jump out of the water and I screamed, "There's a dolphin!" Larry took the wheel back so he could turn around and make the dolphin chase us. One of our students took excellent pictures of it jumping in and out of our wake.
   We caught some fairly large shrimp while we trolled on the way back from the island. One of our students cooked us a nice meal of shrimp and little red potatoes drizzled in butter and Worcestershire sauce one night.
   I spent many nights out on the large pier in front of the GCRL. I met many people visiting from other schools, and I particularly enjoyed talking with a shark researcher and some of his students from the University of New England in Maine. We sat for hours, baiting our hooks with gulf menhaden and shrimp, and catching sand seatrout and hardhead catfish. The students were here for a fish physiology course, and they needed gafftopsail catfish and the seatrout for their lab experiments.
   I had met a different shark researcher earlier at the GCRL. I was pretty excited to find out that there are new satellite tagging capabilities that transmit real-time data from sharks as they go about their daily business. Apparently, we know nothing about sharks! One shark that had been tagged was in the dark for more than 24 hours, so the researchers could tell that it had been eaten by another shark! One hammerhead that had been tagged swam down to a depth of nearly 1000 feet, and did this several times in one day. The researcher said that no one had any idea that a shark could acclimate so quickly to such a rapid change in pressure. The future of shark research is "understanding their biology," I was told. Sounds pretty exciting to me!

   After two days of fishing and seining, one student said, "every student from Tech should take this class. They'd be hooked," he said. I completely agree with him.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Star Wars Cookies

   I want these! Williams Sonoma, one of my favorite stores, has these adorable Star Wars cookie cutters for sale. They do not, however, have any Han Solo cookie cutters.
   That is truly unfortunate....I think a Han Solo cookie could cheer a girl up any day!

Saturday, May 15, 2010


   This is a painting of Diogenes, the famous Greek who was purported to carry a lamp around in the daylight, "looking for an honest man." He shunned wealth and materialistic objects, slept in a tub in the city, and harassed Plato during his lectures. He has been described as a "Socrates gone mad."

   There are many famous quotes from Diogenes, but this one in particular hits home to me:
"The foundation of every state is the education of its youth."

Toga Toga Toga!

   I just want to say that any self-respecting science teacher should own at least one toga. I personally have two tailor-made togas in my possession, and I wear them whenever possible.
   We have an obligation to show our respect for the ancient Greeks, and we should make a concerted effort to acknowledge the contributions they made to science!

Friday, May 14, 2010

Six Billion People and Counting

   At the time of this posting, there are an estimated 6,820,920,273 people in the world. I am sad to report that most of these people do not read my blog. :)    Nonetheless, we are of the same species, we live on the same planet, and we share the same basic needs.
   I talk about exponential human population growth in my biology classes. This chart, with its distinctive J-curve, scares the mess out of me. I have seen this same growth curve with examples of other living things that experienced a similar spike in numbers, only to be abruptly knocked back down by natural controls like starvation and disease.
   What is the carrying capacity of our planet? At what point will resources become scarce enough to cause true human suffering, outbreaks of physical violence, and the inevitable population crash?
   Well, I think some of that has already started. In some parts of the world, humans have truly been suffering for a very long time. What percentage of people in the world today get enough to eat on a regular basis? Why have some countries been able to successfully manage their resources and effectively govern their people, while others have failed miserably?
   This is obviously one reason why the U.S. is preoccupied with the Middle East. We are not largely concerned about the living conditions and quality of life for the natives. We could never justify the high cost of our expensive warfare if it did not have some sort of payback for our citizens. We are fighting for our resources. We need that black gold, because without it our entire civilization would come to a grinding halt.
How would YOUR life change if you suddenly had no access to oil or fossil fuel products?
   A co-worker of mine converted his old Mercedes to run off biodiesel made from the leftover cooking oil at our university's cafeteria. He is a chemistry professor with access to an organic lab, and it only cost him "a few pennies" to collect the waste oil and clean it up enough to power his car. He bragged about driving to work free every day.
Eventually, the cafeteria people (or maybe our administration?) figured out they could sell the used oil instead of just giving it away, and so my co-worker lost his free supply of fuel. "The golden age of fossil fuels is coming to a close," he warned me. I believe him.
   I bought a new car a couple of years ago, and while I was shopping around, I contemplated buying a hybrid electric car. My friends the Hoovers asked, "Why? When you plug your car in, you're still pulling energy from the grid," they said. Electric cars are NOT solving the problem of the looming energy crisis. "We need a new technology," said Dr. Hoover.