Blue Marble - October 2010

The Scientist's Guide to Happiness

| Wed Oct. 6, 2010 4:48 AM PDT

For quite a while, scientists have largely understood happiness to be fairly static. Yes, your happiness would jump when you won the lottery, but a few years later, you'd be back to your genetically-determined "set point" happiness level. But this week, scientists from Netherlands, Germany, and Australia co-authored a paper (PDF) published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science that says life choices can cause permanent changes in happiness levels. Scientists had a number of findings that you might find useful. For example, women who are unattached but thin are happier than women who are obese but partnered; working more hours than you want to is better than being underemployed; people who prioritize family or altruistic goals are happier than those who pursue materialistic or self-centered goals.

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You're Not Going to Gliese 581g (a.k.a Zarmina)

| Wed Oct. 6, 2010 3:30 AM PDT

The discovery of the planet Gliese 581g (Zarmina)—a perhaps semi-habitable planet orbiting Gliese, a star 20 light-years away—was met with much rejoicing in the sci-fi nerd community when it was announced in late September. If you watched the mainstream media coverage, you'd think that we'd finally discovered a backup Earth—a planet that's relatively close that we could maybe colonize at some point in the future. Unfortunately, that's almost certainly not the case. Even if you got around some non-minor problems—the planet is tidally locked, with one side in permanent light (and heat) and the other in permanent darkness (and cold)—it would take a very long time to get there. Like, many lifetimes long. David McConville, a scientist who works with a space technology company, made a video about just how long it would take, and why the sci-fi myth that we have "backup Earths" and second chances is so pernicious:

Dave Goldberg of the User's Guide to the Universe is a lot more optimistic about advances in space travel. But his calculations include all sorts of ridiculous assumptions—the example of a sci-fi-style matter-antimatter drive, for example, to power the spacecraft. And even then, the fuel needed to power the trip would require an amount of energy that would take "3 million years to collect on earth if the entire surface were covered with solar panels." Basically, you're not going to Gliese 581g. We've got to take care of the planet we have. As Crosby, Stills, and Nash wisely said, "Love the One You're With":

(h/t io9)

The Senate Is the Problem

| Tue Oct. 5, 2010 1:57 PM PDT

There's a lot to process in Ryan Lizza's epic New Yorker piece about the demise of the climate bill in the Senate. Among the more interesting elements are the extensive efforts to court Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and the pursuit of additional Republican votes in order to get the White House to even pay attention to the bill. Specifically, the piece claims that at some point there were at least five likely Republican supporters.

I'm more than a bit incredulous about this claim. After all, the main sources for the piece are the offices of Lieberman, Graham, John Kerry, and mostly unnamed White House officials, and it always seem to me that there was more hype than actual hope in their public claims about how far along they were in winning support for the bill. And already one of the Republicans the piece claims was ready to jump on board, Florida's George LeMieux, says that this wasn't exactly the case. LeMieux tweeted yesterday:

NewYorker piece is wrong. Care about energy indep, but never favored cap & tax-- would cost Florida familes 30% ^ in energy costs."

Here's the key passage on LeMieux from Lizza's piece:

Shortly before Thanksgiving, George LeMieux, of Florida, approached Graham in the Senate gym and expressed interest in joining K.G.L. "Let me teach you something about this town," Graham told him. "You can’t come that easy." Graham was trying to give the new senator some advice, according to aides involved with the negotiations: LeMieux would be foolish to join the effort without extracting something for himself.
But LeMieux didn't have the chance to try that, as he soon became another casualty of Republican primary politics. He had been appointed by the Florida governor, Charlie Crist, who was then running in a tight Republican primary for the seat against another Tea Party favorite, Marco Rubio. LeMieux couldn’t do anything that would complicate Crist's life. In a private meeting with the three senators in December, he told them that he couldn’t publicly associate himself with the bill. But, according to someone who was present, he added, "My heart’s with you."

Now, I have no doubt that the three leads on the climate and energy package were aggressively pursuing LeMieux's vote, as well those of Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine and Scott Brown of Massachusetts. They had no choice but to, given that several Democrats were already written off as "no" votes. And I have no doubt that LeMieux's heart really was with them. But he was never actually going to vote for the bill; the party was united behind Minority Leader McConnell in opposition. With Graham's encouragement he might have worked behind the scenes to get more of his priorities into the bill, but politically he was never actually going to put himself on the line and vote for it.

This is pretty much the key element to this entire piece: No amount of deal-making on this bill was ever going to convince Republicans that it was to their political advantage to work with Democrats on this. Even Graham's support was always tenuous at best, and he never seemed to bother trying to understand why climate change was even an issue in the first place. (David Roberts at Grist also has an excellent post on the subject of the Senate's overall ignorance on the issue up today.) And even as the senators turned their attention to getting industry support behind the bill, it was highly unlikely to change the minds of any Republican senators. And because the Senate requires 60 votes to pass anything, a handful of senators control the entire debate—and in this case, the debate happens to be of monumental consequence.

But that's the story of what went wrong here, in a nutshell: The GOP had a greater political agenda in mind, and compromise and courtship were never going to change that.

Audio: Designer Bruce Mau on the Suburbs, the Mall and the Automobile

Tue Oct. 5, 2010 11:24 AM PDT

Chad Mageira/FlickrChad Mageira/Flickr

For designer and author Bruce Mau, environmentalists will never win hearts and minds as long as they frame the issue of sustainable living negatively. Rather than talking about cost and sacrifice, he believes the emphasis should be placed on investment and opportunity. Mau aims to reshape culture and create better, greener experiences through design.

Guest host Jeanne Park sat down with Mau at the Louise Blouin Creative Leadership Summit in New York City to talk about his love of the suburbs, the beauty of cup holders and the challenge of rebranding climate change.

This podcast was produced by Need to Know as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Unintended Consequences: Green Products Edition

| Tue Oct. 5, 2010 10:51 AM PDT

My colleague Kate Sheppard just posted a funny-yet-disturbing piece about how Frito-Lay is ditching it's compostable Sun Chips bags because customers are complaining that the bags make too much noise. And maybe some of you caught this recent piece in the New York Times about how the new low-phosphate detergents are great for the environment, but don't do a very good job washing dishes. All of which reminded me of yet another amusing-yet-disheartening story I heard while camping with my kids in California's Sequoia National Park this past summer.

Besides boasting the world's biggest and oldest trees—some of them have been around for three millenia—the park is home to Crystal Cave, an impressive labyrinth of marble and limestone formations. Last year, the Sequoia Natural History Association (SNHA)—the nonprofit that runs cave tours and takes care of maintenance—teamed up with the National Park Service to rig the cave with solar power and LED lighting, thought to be less disruptive to the cave's sensitive ecosystems. In addition to other grants, SNHA applied for and received federal stimulus funding for the project, which was touted by the Fresno Bee on May 7:

Popular Crystal Cave—home to eyeless bugs and spiders with monster jaws—will be illuminated by the power of the sun starting Saturday.

For decades, Sequoia National Park visitors have toured the marble cave under the glare of incandescent lights that have drawn power from a propane generator.

On Saturday, when the cave opens for tourist season, the lighting will switch over to solar power fed into a system of light-emitting diodes, known as LEDs, which are stingy in electricity use. It is believed to be the National Park Service's first cave lit by the sun.

I'd never seen any lights in the cave. In August 2009, when we first took a tour, were were handed flashlights at the entrance. In August 2010, back for another tour, we noticed the big solar array in the parking area, but after hiking the half-mile or so down to the cave, we were again invited to grab a flashlight from the bin. When we asked our tour guide what was up with the panels, he told us about the whole solar project.

So why wasn't it up an running? Well, our guide explained, it turns out the well-intended project managers had opted for the "green" power cables—encased in soy-based insulation.

Wild animals chewed them up. Lights out.

Why We're Doomed

| Tue Oct. 5, 2010 10:00 AM PDT

I don't typically weigh in on green consumer products or environmental marketing. But I'm making an exception given today's troubling news that Frito-Lay is ditching the biodegradable SunChips bag it unveiled 18 months ago because consumers have complained it was "too noisy." Seriously? The company is bagging the bag because American couch potatoes can't hear their TVs over the sound of their chip sack?

I don't necessarily blame Frito-Lay. It's a corporation and its job is to keep customers happy (and make money), so I can forgive them a little timidity on the issue, given that SunChips sales were apparently plummeting. What miffs me is that a little noise was apparently too much for Americans to handle. SunChips sales have reportedly declined more than 11 percent in the past 52 weeks because of the bags. The bags are made from plant-based materials and are 100 percent compostable, which was a pretty big deal—that means you can keep your chip habit without producing a ton of landfill waste. But due to the noise complaints, the company is pulling them immediately, USA Today reports:

The company is returning them to their former bags that can't be recycled — but won't wake the neighbors — while it works frantically to come up with a new, quieter eco-friendly bag.
The noise of the bag — due to an unusual molecular structure that makes the bag more rigid — has been compared to everything from lawnmowers to jet engines.

The article notes that there's a Facebook group with more than 44,000 members called "Sorry But I Can't Hear You Over This SunChips Bag," further evidence that the bags aren't all that popular. Actually, there are at least 153 different SunChip-themed Facebook groups, including one called I <3 my SunChips Bag, for whatever that's worth. For now at least, the company still has up its website touting the wonders of the bag, which notes: "Although our compostable bag is a bit louder, we hope you'll appreciate its environmental benefit." There's also a video showing how the bags break down in 14 weeks that concludes with the tag line "Change is irresistable" (which, um, apparently isn't the case).

I'll admit that the bags are certainly a lot louder than your regular non-biodegradable type. The noise is certainly enough to alert your living companions to your snack problem. (Maybe Frito-Lay should re-market it as a diet product if the noise is enough to discourage constant munching.)  But is that really impacting Americans' ability to enjoy their chips? Is this what it comes down to—we want our chips crunchy but our bags have to remain silent?

I can't think of a more absurd example of how resistant to change Americans really are. It's not unlike the never-ending debate over compact fluorescent light bulbs; now that all of the other dumb arguments against the more efficient bulbs have been refuted repeatedly, the only one opponents have left is that they simply don't care for the way they look.

Of course everyone is entitled to have opinions about the relative aesthetics of consumer products, but should those really trump the environmental benefits? In the grand scheme of things, this is the absolute, bare-minimum level of sacrifice Americans are asked to make. They still get to eat the same chips, they just come from a different bag; they still light their homes, but with a slightly different bulb. But apparently that's still too much. Even worse is the fact that Americans can't muster the support to pass a climate bill, but a bunch of angry couch potatoes can successfully mobilize to force Frito-Lay to drop their innovative packaging. If the sound of a crinkly eco-chip bag is too much to handle, then the human species really is screwed.

More on the subject of the bagged bags is here.

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The White House Goes Solar

| Tue Oct. 5, 2010 7:42 AM PDT

The White House gave a group of solar-boosting climate activists something to shine about on Tuesday, with the announcement that President Obama's home will soon feature its own set of solar panels.

The group 350.org has been campaigning for the Obamas to reinstall solar on the White House since July, and last month delivered one of Jimmy Carter's old panels to the doorstep. The 350.org folks held a meeting with White House officials during their visit to DC last month, but didn't get a commitment one way or another. Now the White House says it plans to have the panels installed by next spring.

The Associated Press broke the news, which Energy Secretary Steven Chu and White House Council on Environmental Quality Chair Nancy Sutley formally announced at the GreenGov conference at George Washington University Tuesday morning. The system will provide some power for the Obama's residence in the White House and will be used to heat water.

"This project reflects President Obama's strong commitment to US leadership in solar energy and the jobs it will create here at home," said Chu. "Deploying solar energy technologies across the country will help America lead the global economy for years to come."

The group hopes the panels will serve as a "constant reminder to be pushing the Congress for the kind of comprehensive reform we need," they wrote in a blog post this morning.

"The White House did the right thing, and for the right reasons: they listened to the Americans who asked for solar on their roof, and they listened to the scientists and engineers who told them this is the path to the future," said 350.org founder, writer, and Mother Jones contributor Bill McKibben. "If it has anything like the effect of the White House garden, it could be a trigger for a wave of solar installations across the country and around the world."

The news is just the first of several big announcements on solar that the Obama administration plans to make on Tuesday. This afternoon, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger are holding a press conference during which they are expected to announce the approval of two new solar projects on public lands in California. Salazar hinted last week that several big announcements of large-scale renewable projects are coming soon.

Solar industry officials are, as you might guess, pleased about the White House announcement. "Putting solar on the roof of the nation’s most important real estate is a powerful symbol calling on all Americans to rethink how we generate electricity," said Rhone Resch, president of the Solar Energy Industry Association. "It's an example of how each one of us can improve energy security, employ Americans and cut electricity costs."

Cuccinelli's Attack on Climate Science Continues

| Tue Oct. 5, 2010 3:00 AM PDT

Ken Cuccinelli, Virginia's crusading right-wing attorney general, is taking another shot in his war on climate science. On Monday, he issued a another subpoena of documents from the University of Virginia's climate science program. This comes after a judge rejected his last attempt to force the university to turn over documents.

Cuccinelli is seeking the records of Michael Mann, a climate scientist now at Pennsylvania State University. Mann is best known for the so-called "hockey stick" graph illustrating the uptick in global temperatures over the last century, which skeptics have launched numerous attacks on since it was first published more than a decade ago. The furor was stirred again last fall when hackers stole and released a number of emails between climate scientists that those who question whether the planet is warming spun as evidence of a conspiracy. Cuccinelli took the so-called "ClimateGate" controversy as an opportunity to harass Mann and attempt to prove that he committed "fraud" in his work on climate change.

"The Cooch" has tried to obtain the documents under the Virginia Fraud Against Taxpayers Act, but judge rejected his first subpoena in August, finding no evidence to back up his claim that Mann committeed fraud. Cuccinelli's new subpoena narrows the scope of the documents he's requesting to only those related to one $214,700 state grant to fund a 2003 climate study. Cuccinelli claims that Mann "mislead the granter" by basing his application on flawed studies, and that UVa. has documents that his office needs to investigate that assertion. He also expands his reasoning for the request, arguing that two of Mann's papers on global warming "have come under significant criticism" and that Mann knowingly included "false information, unsubstantiated claims and/or were otherwise misleading" in his publications.

"Specifically, but without limitation, some of the conclusions of the papers demonstrate a complete lack of rigor regarding the statistical analysis of the alleged data, meaning that the result reported lacked statistical significance without a specific statement to that effect," the civil investigative demand from the AG's office states.

Of course, one might wonder what part of Cuccinelli's resume qualifies him to evalute the rigor of Mann's climate work. That aside, it also neglects to mention that multiple investigations into the so-called "ClimateGate" controversy found no evidence of any wrongdoing on Mann's part and the science has repeatedly been affirmed in other studies. UVa. has until Oct. 29 to decide whether to produce the requested documents or fight this subpoena as well.

Of course, this isn't really about Mann; it's about the bigger goal of undermining climate science and instilling fear in scientists. Francesca Grifo, senior scientist and director of the Union of Concerned Scientists' Scientific Integrity Program, said Cuccinelli is "flagrantly abusing his power" for political gain. "The attorney general continues to harass Michael Mann and other climate scientists simply because their results don’t fit with his political views," said Grifo, adding that the main goal is perpetuating public doubt and confusion on the subject. (UCS also has a timeline of events in Cuccinelli's crusade against Mann.)

Mann himself gave a statement to the Washington Post criticizing the latest subpoena:

"I find it extremely disturbing that Mr. Cuccinelli has sought to continue to abuse his power as the attorney general of Virginia in this way, in the process smearing the University of Virginia and me and other climate scientists," Mann said. "The people of Virginia need to be extremely disturbed that he is using their tax dollars to pursue this partisan witch hunt."

The Ocean: A Snapshot 2000-2010

| Mon Oct. 4, 2010 4:24 PM PDT

The first Census of Marine Life has concluded a decade of investigation into the whos, how manys, and wherefores of the denizens of the World Ocean and released their findings today.

(NASA image by Robert Simmon and Marit Jentoft-Nilsen, based on MODIS data.)

(Photo Mila Zinkova, courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

While there's debate over the costs of the enterprise ($650 million, $75 million of which came from the Sloan Foundation), I say: Money well spent.

(Photo © Julia Whitty)

The historic enterprise will almost certainly be followed by similar investigative decades in years to come, à la the International Polar Year. Science follows the footprints of past scientists, orienteering along maps of prior research, recalibrating the compass to current understanding.

The census includes the investigations of 2,700 researchers from 83 nations sailing aboard 540 expeditions to the farthest- and deepest-flung regions of our world.

(Venus flytrap anemone. Photo Ian MacDonald, Florida State University, Census of Marine Life.)

The results have appeared in 2,600 scientific publications. Most of those are open access online. Here's the bibliographic database.

(Larval tube anemone. Photograph courtesy Cheryl Clarke-Hopcroft/UAF/CMarZ, Census of Marine Life.)

The data are now available to everyone in more than 30 million records listed online in the Ocean Biogeographic Information System database. This database greatly contributes to a 21st-century trend of data sharing. A new scientific revolution.

Among the highlights of the census:

  • More than 1 million species likely inhabit our oceans, less than a quarter described by science and that's not counting microbes, which potentially number in the hundreds of millions.
  • 6,000 possible new marine species were added to the catalogue of life on Earth
  • Formal scientific descriptions were made of more than 1,200 new species
  • 35,000 species were barcoded (genetically analyzed), an efforts that's redrawn our understanding of the tree of life
  • Extremophile life turns out to be normal in marine habitats
  • Rare species turn out to be common in marine habitats
  • Even after a decade of intensive effort, for more than 20 percent of the ocean’s volume, the census database has no records whatsoever

(Copepod. Photo Uwe Kils, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.)

(Acantharian. Photo Linda Amaral Zettler. Census of Marine Life.)

(Squidworm. Photo Laurence Madin, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Census of Marine Life.)

The pdf of the highlights report:

First Census of Marine Life 2010: Highlights of a Decade of Discovery

Reposted from my blog Deep Blue Home.

Panda Death and Japan-China Relations

| Mon Oct. 4, 2010 2:00 PM PDT

Right now, China-Japan relations are not exactly warm and fuzzy. The two countries share thousands of years of history, some of it involving war, and this weekend there were protests throughout Japan after a Chinese captain allegedly used his boat to ram two Japanese coast guard ships near the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, which both countries lay claim to. The Chinese captain was under arrest, but Japanese authorities released him and refuse to release video of the incident, sparking thousands of Japanese to take to the streets.

Another spanner in the works: the death of a panda in a Japanese zoo was determined to be a result of "human error." Oji Zoo panda Kou Kou was having semen extracted when material from his stomach went into his lungs, asphyxiating him. The inhalation of vomitus is called aspiration asphyxia, and it's the reason doctors tell you not to eat before a procedure. If you regurgitate while unconscious, on your back, whatever you ate will be breathed into your lungs, blocking the airflow and possibly killing you. Japan must now pay China around $500,000 for the death of Kou Kou, and it's unknown if the incident will affect a July deal in which China will rent two pandas to the Ueno Zoo in Tokyo in exchange for about $1 million a year. Pandas are notoriously bad at breeding in the wild, but have tremendous appeal for zoo visitors. While some have suggested we let the panda go extinct, the animal remains a diplomatic tool for China, even in tense times. China is recently ran a contest for six people to become "Pambassadors": panda ambassadors who will spend a month working at China's Chengdu panda reserve. One of the six Pambassadors is a Japanese woman. Seems like she may have a harder job than she originally signed up for.