Tag: The Conversation

Science and the ocean floor

A wonderful postscript to my letter to Mr. Neptune!

The following was published last Wednesday and appeared on The Conversation site.

I found it very interesting and wanted to share it with you.

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Scientists have been drilling into the ocean floor for 50 years – here’s what they’ve found so far

September 26, 2018

By Professor Suzanne O’Connell, Professor of Earth & Environmental Sciences, Wesleyan University

The scientific drilling ship JOIDES Resolution arrives in Honolulu after successful sea trials and testing of scientific and drilling equipment. IODP, CC BY-ND

It’s stunning but true that we know more about the surface of the moon than about the Earth’s ocean floor. Much of what we do know has come from scientific ocean drilling – the systematic collection of core samples from the deep seabed. This revolutionary process began 50 years ago, when the drilling vessel Glomar Challenger sailed into the Gulf of Mexico on August 11, 1968 on the first expedition of the federally funded Deep Sea Drilling Project.

I went on my first scientific ocean drilling expedition in 1980, and since then have participated in six more expeditions to locations including the far North Atlantic and Antaractica’s Weddell Sea. In my lab, my students and I work with core samples from these expeditions. Each of these cores, which are cylinders 31 feet long and 3 inches wide, is like a book whose information is waiting to be translated into words. Holding a newly opened core, filled with rocks and sediment from the Earth’s ocean floor, is like opening a rare treasure chest that records the passage of time in Earth’s history.

Over a half-century, scientific ocean drilling has proved the theory of plate tectonics, created the field of paleoceanography and redefined how we view life on Earth by revealing an enormous variety and volume of life in the deep marine biosphere. And much more remains to be learned.

Technological innovations

Two key innovations made it possible for research ships to take core samples from precise locations in the deep oceans. The first, known as dynamic positioning, enables a 471-foot ship to stay fixed in place while drilling and recovering cores, one on top of the next, often in over 12,000 feet of water.

Anchoring isn’t feasible at these depths. Instead, technicians drop a torpedo-shaped instrument called a transponder over the side. A device called a transducer, mounted on the ship’s hull, sends an acoustic signal to the transponder, which replies. Computers on board calculate the distance and angle of this communication. Thrusters on the ship’s hull maneuver the vessel to stay in exactly the same location, countering the forces of currents, wind and waves.

Another challenge arises when drill bits have to be replaced mid-operation. The ocean’s crust is

The re-entry cone is welded together around the drill pipe, then lowered down the pipe to guide reinsertion before changing drill bits. IODP, CC BY-ND

composed of igneous rock that wears bits down long before the desired depth is reached.

When this happens, the drill crew brings the entire drill pipe to the surface, mounts a new drill bit and returns to the same hole. This requires guiding the pipe into a funnel shaped re-entry cone, less than 15 feet wide, placed in the bottom of the ocean at the mouth of the drilling hole. The process, which was first accomplished in 1970, is like lowering a long strand of spaghetti into a quarter-inch-wide funnel at the deep end of an Olympic swimming pool.

Confirming plate tectonics

When scientific ocean drilling began in 1968, the theory of plate tectonics was a subject of active debate. One key idea was that new ocean crust was created at ridges in the seafloor, where oceanic plates moved away from each other and magma from earth’s interior welled up between them. According to this theory, crust should be new material at the crest of ocean ridges, and its age should increase with distance from the crest.

Part of a core section from the Chicxulub impact crater. It is suevite, a type of rock, formed during the impact, that contains rock fragments and melted rocks. IODP, CC BY-ND

The only way to prove this was by analyzing sediment and rock cores. In the winter of 1968-1969, the Glomar Challenger drilled seven sites in the South Atlantic Ocean to the east and west of the Mid-Atlantic ridge. Both the igneous rocks of the ocean floor and overlying sediments aged in perfect agreement with the predictions, confirming that ocean crust was forming at the ridges and plate tectonics was correct.

Reconstructing earth’s history

The ocean record of Earth’s history is more continuous than geologic formations on land, where erosion and redeposition by wind, water and ice can disrupt the record. In most ocean locations sediment is laid down particle by particle, microfossil by microfossil, and remains in place, eventually succumbing to pressure and turning into rock.

Microfossils (plankton) preserved in sediment are beautiful and informative, even though some

are smaller than the width of a human hair. Like larger plant and animal fossils, scientists can use these delicate structures of calcium and silicon to reconstruct past environments.

Thanks to scientific ocean drilling, we know that after an asteroid strike killed all non-avian dinosaurs 66 million years ago, new life colonized the crater rim within years, and within 30,000 years a full ecosystem was thriving. A few deep ocean organisms lived right through the meteorite impact.

Ocean drilling has also shown that ten million years later, a massive discharge of carbon – probably from extensive volcanic activity and methane released from melting methane hydrates – caused an abrupt, intense warming event, or hyperthermal, called the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum. During this episode, even the Arctic reached over 73 degrees Fahrenheit.

The resulting acidification of the ocean from the release of carbon into the atmosphere and ocean caused massive dissolution and change in the deep ocean ecosystem.

This episode is an impressive example of the impact of rapid climate warming. The total amount of carbon released during the PETM is estimated to be about equal to the amount that humans will release if we burn all of Earth’s fossil fuel reserves. Yet, an important difference is that the carbon released by the volcanoes and hydrates was at a much slower rate than we are currently releasing fossil fuel. Thus we can expect even more dramatic climate and ecosystem changes unless we stop emitting carbon.

Enhanced scanning electron microscope images of phytoplankton (left, a diatom; right, a coccolithophore). Different phytoplankton species have distinct climatic preferences, which makes them ideal indicators of surface ocean conditions. Dee Breger, CC BY-NC-ND

 

Finding life in ocean sediments

Scientific ocean drilling has also shown that there are roughly as many cells in marine sediment as in the ocean or in soil. Expeditions have found life in sediments at depths over 8000 feet; in seabed deposits that are 86 million years old; and at temperatures above 140 degrees Fahrenheit.

Today scientists from 23 nations are proposing and conducting research through the International Ocean Discovery Program, which uses scientific ocean drilling to recover data from seafloor sediments and rocks and to monitor environments under the ocean floor. Coring is producing new information about plate tectonics, such as the complexities of ocean crust formation, and the diversity of life in the deep oceans.

This research is expensive, and technologically and intellectually intense. But only by exploring the deep sea can we recover the treasures it holds and better understand its beauty and complexity.

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Did the phrase in the first paragraph of the article jump out for you as it did for me?

This one: “…we know more about the surface of the moon than about the Earth’s ocean floor.

Doesn’t Mr. Neptune hold his cards close to his chest.

Wonder if he communes with man’s best friend??

 

The Fall

And I am not speaking of the Autumn!

To be honest, dear friends, I really agonised over whether or not to republish an item that I saw on The Conversation blogsite last Friday. For it has nothing to do with dogs, nothing to do with learning from dogs, and everything to do with being the ‘wrong’ side of 65 years old.

But then one day last week I was out watching some tree cutting being undertaken by Jimmy Gonzales and his crew and heard the phoning ringing in the house.

I ran for the steps leading up to the deck and missed the bottom step.

I fell but luckily managed to grab the handrails seconds before I could have smacked my head into the steps. However, it did scare me especially when I reflected that it wasn’t even 9 months since my medical emergency following my fall from my bicycle.

It confirmed the sense in republishing the item. Republished within the terms of The Conversation site.

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Before the fall: How oldsters can avoid one of old age’s most dangerous events

September 21, 2018

By four authors:

 Co-Director of Texas A&M Center for Population Health and Aging, Texas A&M University

  Research Scientist, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

  Regents and Distinguished Professor, Associate Vice President for Strategic Partnerships and Initiatives, Texas A&M University

  Adjunct Assistant Professor, Public Health, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Baby boomers, who once viewed themselves as the coolest generation in history, are now turning their thoughts away from such things as partying and touring alongside rock bands to how to they can stay healthy as they age. And, one of the most important parts of healthy aging is avoiding a fall, the number one cause of accidental death among people 65 and older.

The issue is growing more pressing each day. More adults than ever – 46 million – are 65 and older, and their numbers are increasing rapidly.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in four older adults will fall each year. Falls are the leading cause of injury and injury deaths among older adults. And, they are costly. Falls are responsible for an estimated US$31 billion in annual Medicare costs. This estimate does not account for non-direct medical or societal costs.

People who fall can lose their physical mobility for life, go into a hospital never to be discharged, require skilled nursing or other caregiver support, or become so fearful about falling again that they dramatically limit their daily activities.

The good news is that most falls are preventable, research has identified many modifiable risk factors for falls, and older adults can empower themselves to reduce their falls risks. This means there are opportunities to intervene in clinical and community settings to promote protective behaviors and improve safety.

A life-changing event

Falls can cause fractures, traumatic brain injuries and other conditions that require an emergency room visit or hospitalization. An older adult dies from a fall every 19 minutes, and every 11 seconds an older adult is treated in an emergency room for a fall-related injury. About one in four falls results in needed medical attention, and falls are responsible for about 95 percent of all hip fractures. In addition to the physical and mental trauma associated with the fall itself, falls often result in fear of falling, reduced quality of life, loss of independence and social isolation.

shutterstock. Astrid Gast/Shutterstock.com

There is no single cause for falling. Falls can result from issues related to biological aging, such as balance problems, loss of muscle strength, changes in vision, arthritis or diabetes. Taking a combination of several prescription drugs can also contribute to falls. Lifestyle behaviors such as physical inactivity, poor nutrition and poor sleep quality can also increase the risk for falling. Environmental hazards inside the home, such as poor lighting and throw rugs, and outside, such as bad weather, standing water and uneven sidewalks, can create situations where falls are more likely to occur.

It takes a careful village

Because falls can be caused by many things, the solutions must also include a diverse set of systems, organizations and professionals. Toward that end, 42 active or developing state fall prevention coalitions, which coordinate initiatives and serve as advocates for policy development and community action, are in place. Their activities foster collaboration across the aging services network, public health and health care system. They do such things as host health fairs and fall risk screening events, fall prevention programs, and awareness-raising events to inform decision-makers and legislators about ways to make communities safer for older adults.

Here are some of the key objectives that the coalitions are working on to reduce hazards from falling:

  • Enhance clinical-community collaboration for programming.

There are many fall prevention programs offered in communities to promote healthful behaviors and to reinforce positive mental perspectives about falls being preventable.

People concerned about falling should contact their local Area Agency on Aging to find out where these programs are offered and which can be most beneficial. Also, seniors should ask their doctors about fall-related risk factors and what they can do to reduce risk. Communicate your concerns about falls with your health care team and social network, tell them about what you learn during your fall prevention programs, and report back about how they are making a difference in your life.

  • Manage chronic conditions.

About 70 percent of older adults have one or more chronic conditions, many of which can increase the risk for falling. For example, people with diabetes may have vision problems and problems with sensation in their feet. Also, the medications used to treat these conditions can increase fall risk. And, taking five or more medications has been identified with increased frailty and higher risk for falling.

Being physically active can help seniors have better balance and reduce the risk of falls. wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock.com

While health care access and utilization are important for chronic disease diagnosis and management, 90 percent of health care happens outside the health care setting. Therefore, older adults need to manage their diseases better. To do this, however, they often need help. For starters, they should discuss the side effects of all medications with their doctors and also how best to adhere to prescribed treatment regimens, such as when to take medications, whether to take with food and whether there are possible interactions of one medication with another. Seniors also can consider enrolling in evidence-based disease self-management programs to improve their knowledge and confidence to manage their conditions as well as enhance lasting skills for goal setting and action planning, such as being physically active for 30 minutes a day for five days a week.

  • Alter the physical environment.

About 44 percent of falls occur inside the home. In-home risk factors for falls can include dim lighting, clutter on floors, throw rugs and ottomans, missing railings, uncovered wires and extension cords, children and pets underfoot and unsafe bathrooms. A unsafe bathroom is one with an inappropriate toilet height, high shower or bathtub walls and no grab rails.

To identify possible risks in the home, the CDC created a user-friendly safety checklist that can safeguard older adults by eliminating environmental hazards.

  • Maintain healthful behaviors.

Daily lifestyle behaviors such as physical activity, nutrition and sleep quality can influence fall risk, and these are never too late to change. Interventions can be successful for people of all ages. Among the most important is physical activity, namely safely performing lower-body exercises to increase strength, balance and flexibility. Additionally, seniors should work with their health care team to have medications reviewed and eyes checked regularly. Also, they should ask about their vitamin D levels and possible nutritional supplementation.

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Yes, when it comes to being more careful on our feet once again our dear dogs offer us a much better way: Have four of them!!

Just look at the ease of our dear Brandy scampering through the woods yesterday morning!

Our dear, sorely-missed Pharaoh demonstrating the advantages of four feet!

So my good people – you be careful out there!

How our dogs come to us in times of angst.

Science confirms what every dog lover truly knows.

This was seen on The Conversation website and is republished within the terms of that site.

You will love it!

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Lending a helping paw: Dogs will aid their crying human

File 20180723 189335 ay9ify.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
I’ll try to be there for you 100 percent. Chris Gladis, CC BY-ND

Authors: Julia Meyers-Manor, Ripon College and Emily Sanford, Johns Hopkins University

From Lassie to Balto, pop culture loves stories of a dog coming to a person’s rescue. Anecdotally, people experience their dogs coming to their aid every day, like when one of us found herself “trapped” by her children under a pile of pillows only to be “rescued” by her noble collie, Athos.

But is there any scientific evidence behind these sorts of tales?

Researchers know that dogs respond to human crying and will approach people – whether their owner or a total stranger – who show signs of distress. We decided to investigate whether dogs would go a step further than just approaching people: Would they take action to help a person in need?

Dog/human partners come into the lab

We recruited 34 pet dogs and therapy dogs – that is, those who visit people in hospitals and nursing homes – to take part in our study. Dogs included a variety of breeds and ages, from an elderly golden retriever therapy dog to an adolescent spaniel mix.

When they got to the lab, each owner filled out a survey about the dog’s training and behaviors while we attached a heart rate monitor to the dog’s chest to measure its stress responses.

In the experimental setup, dogs could see and hear their owners.

Next, we instructed the owner on how to behave during the experiment. Each owner sat in a chair behind a clear door that was magnetized shut – there as a barrier separating the dog from its owner – that the dog could easily push open. We assigned half the people to cry loudly and say “Help” in a distressed voice every 15 seconds. The other half of our volunteers we assigned to hum “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and say “Help” in a calm voice every 15 seconds. We ran the test until the dog opened the door or, if it didn’t, until five minutes elapsed.

Past research seemed to indicate that dogs would not help their human companions in distress, but it’s possible that the tasks to demonstrate “help” were too difficult for a dog to understand. So we adapted this straightforward task from previous research in rats. It seemed like dogs would be capable of nudging open a door to access their owners.

Lassie, Timmy’s crying in the other room

We expected to find that dogs would open the door more often if their owner was crying than if they were humming. Surprisingly, that isn’t what we found: About half the dogs opened the door, regardless of which condition they were in, which tells us that dogs in both conditions wanted to be near their owners.

I’m on my way! Emily Sanford and Julia Meyers-Manor, CC BY-ND

When we looked at how quickly the dogs who opened the door did so, we found a stark difference: In the crying condition, dogs took an average of 23 seconds to open the door, while in the control condition, they took more than a minute and a half. The humans’ crying seemed to affect the dogs’ behaviors, taking just a quarter as long to push open the door and get to their human if they seemed distressed. We did not find any differences between therapy dogs and other pet dogs.

Other interesting results came when we looked into how the dogs were behaving in each condition. In the crying condition, we found the dogs that opened the door showed fewer signs of stress – and were reported by their owners to be less anxious – than dogs that did not open it. We also found that dogs that opened the door more quickly were less stressed than dogs that took longer to open it.

In contrast, dogs in the humming condition showed a slight tendency to open more quickly if they were reported to be more anxious. This may mean that dogs who opened in the humming condition were seeking their owners for their own comfort.

Helping requires more than just empathy

Because both humans and animals tend to be more empathetic toward individuals with whom they are more familiar or close, we thought that the strength of a dog’s bond with its owner might explain some of the differences we saw in dogs’ empathetic responses.

As soon as the test was over, we let the dog and owner reunite and cuddle for a few minutes to make sure everyone was calm before the next part of the experiment. Next, we turned to a test called the Impossible Task to learn a bit more about each dog’s emotional bond with its person.

Hey, a little help down here for your furry friend? Julia Meyers-Manor and Emily Sanford, CC BY-ND

In this task, the dog learns to tip over a jar to get to a treat; then we lock the jar onto a board with a treat inside and record whether the dog gazes at its owner or a stranger. There have been some mixed results with this test, but the idea is that a dog who spends more time looking at their owner during this task may have a stronger bond with their owner than a dog that doesn’t spend much time looking at their owner.

We found that dogs who opened the door in the crying condition did gaze at their owner more during the Impossible Task than non-openers. On the other hand, it was the dogs who didn’t open the door in the humming condition that gazed at their owners more than those who opened it. This suggests that openers in the crying condition and non-openers in the humming condition had the strongest relationships with their owners.

Taken together, we interpreted these results as evidence that dogs were behaving empathetically in response to their crying owners. To behave empathetically toward another individual, you must not only be aware of the distress of another person, but also suppress your own stress enough to help out. If you are overwhelmingly stressed, you might either be incapacitated or try to leave the situation entirely. This pattern has been seen in children, where the most empathetic kids are the ones who are skilled at regulating their own emotional states enough to give help.

It appears to be the case with these dogs as well. Dogs with weaker emotional bonds to their owners, and those that perceived their owners’ distress but were unable to suppress their own stress response, may have been too overwhelmed by the situation to provide any help.

While everyone hopes their dog would help them if they ever were in trouble, we found that many of the dogs did not. People involved in our experiment, particularly those with dogs that didn’t open the door, told us many stories of their dogs coming to their aid in the past. Our study suggests that in some cases if your dog doesn’t help you, it’s not a sign he doesn’t love you; Fido might just love you too much.

Julia Meyers-Manor, Assistant Professor of Psychology, Ripon College and Emily Sanford, PhD Student in Psychology and Brain Sciences, Johns Hopkins University

(This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.)

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Well done, Julia Meyers-Manor and Emily Sanford. Great work!

 

Can we really avoid the ‘train crash’?

The idea that humanity will not prevent the approaching disaster is beyond belief!

One of the results of all you great people signing up to follow Learning from Dogs is that it encourages me to share things that strike me as so, so important.

Another of the results in there being, as of today, 3,349 following this place, is that I get the sense of what many of you good people also feel is important. Ergo, it is clear to me, clear beyond doubt, that caring and loving a dog or two makes you a person who cares and loves passionately this beautiful planet that is our home.

The emotion that is spilling out of me via these words to you is a result of having just read an essay published recently on The Conversation site and shared with you today.

Directly, it has nothing to do with our dear dogs. Yet, in a way, it does!

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7.5 billion and counting: How many humans can the Earth support?

By Associate Professor of Mathematics, College of the Holy Cross, July 9th 2018.

Humans are the most populous large mammal on Earth today, and probably in all of geological history. This World Population Day, humans number in the vicinity of 7.5 to 7.6 billion individuals.

Can the Earth support this many people indefinitely? What will happen if we do nothing to manage future population growth and total resource use? These complex questions are ecological, political, ethical – and urgent. Simple mathematics shows why, shedding light on our species’ ecological footprint.

The mathematics of population growth

In an environment with unlimited natural resources, population size grows exponentially. One characteristic feature of exponential growth is the time a population takes to double in size.

Exponential growth of world population

It took 127 years for the world population to double from one billion to two. By contrast, it took only 47 years, from 1927 to 1974, to double from two billion to four. Since 1960, world population has grown by about one billion every 13 years. Each point represents an additional one billion people.

[Ed: Text taken from a chart displayed in the article.]

Exponential growth tends to start slowly, sneaking up before ballooning in just a few doublings.

To illustrate, suppose Jeff Bezos agreed to give you one penny on Jan. 1, 2019, two pennies on Feb. 1, four on March 1, and so forth, with the payment doubling each month. How long would his $100 billion fortune uphold the contract? Take a moment to ponder and guess.

After one year, or 12 payments, your total contract receipts come to US$40.95, equivalent to a night at the movies. After two years, $167,772.15 – substantial, but paltry to a billionaire. After three years, $687,194,767.35, or about one week of Bezos’ 2017 income.

The 43rd payment, on July 1, 2022, just short of $88 billion and equal to all the preceding payments together (plus one penny), breaks the bank.

Real population growth

For real populations, doubling time is not constant. Humans reached 1 billion around 1800, a doubling time of about 300 years; 2 billion in 1927, a doubling time of 127 years; and 4 billion in 1974, a doubling time of 47 years.

On the other hand, world numbers are projected to reach 8 billion around 2023, a doubling time of 49 years, and barring the unforeseen, expected to level off around 10 to 12 billion by 2100.

This anticipated leveling off signals a harsh biological reality: Human population is being curtailed by the Earth’s carrying capacity, the population at which premature death by starvation and disease balances the birth rate.

World population projections

In 2020, the UN predicts that there will be 7,795,482 people worldwide.

[Ed: Text taken from a chart displayed in the article.]

Ecological implications

Humans are consuming and polluting resources – aquifers and ice caps, fertile soil, forests, fisheries and oceans – accumulated over geological time, tens of thousands of years, or longer.

Wealthy countries consume out of proportion to their populations. As a fiscal analogy, we live as if our savings account balance were steady income.

According to the Worldwatch Institute, an environmental think tank, the Earth has 1.9 hectares of land per person for growing food and textiles for clothing, supplying wood and absorbing waste. The average American uses about 9.7 hectares.

These data alone suggest the Earth can support at most one-fifth of the present population, 1.5 billion people, at an American standard of living.

A man works recycling plastic bottles outside Hanoi, Vietnam. REUTERS/Kham

Water is vital. Biologically, an adult human needs less than 1 gallon of water daily. In 2010, the U.S. used 355 billion gallons of freshwater, over 1,000 gallons (4,000 liters) per person per day. Half was used to generate electricity, one-third for irrigation, and roughly one-tenth for household use: flushing toilets, washing clothes and dishes, and watering lawns.

If 7.5 billion people consumed water at American levels, world usage would top 10,000 cubic kilometers per year. Total world supply – freshwater lakes and rivers – is about 91,000 cubic kilometers.

World Health Organization figures show 2.1 billion people lack ready access to safe drinking water, and 4.5 billion lack managed sanitation. Even in industrialized countries, water sources can be contaminated with pathogens, fertilizer and insecticide runoff, heavy metals and fracking effluent.

Freedom to choose

Though the detailed future of the human species is impossible to predict, basic facts are certain. Water and food are immediate human necessities. Doubling food production would defer the problems of present-day birth rates by at most a few decades. The Earth supports industrialized standards of living only because we are drawing down the “savings account” of non-renewable resources, including fertile topsoil, drinkable water, forests, fisheries and petroleum.

The drive to reproduce is among the strongest desires, both for couples and for societies. How will humans reshape one of our most cherished expectations – “Be fruitful and multiply” – in the span of one generation? What will happen if present-day birth rates continue?

Population stays constant when couples have about two children who survive to reproductive age. In some parts of the developing world today, couples average three to six children.

We cannot wish natural resources into existence. Couples, however, have the freedom to choose how many children to have. Improvements in women’s rights, education and self-determination generally lead to lower birth rates.

As a mathematician, I believe reducing birth rates substantially is our best prospect for raising global standards of living. As a citizen, I believe nudging human behavior, by encouraging smaller families, is our most humane hope.

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This essay from Professor Hwang is one of those articles that one frequently sees online that comes across as really interesting but, in the end, only gets a skim read; at best.

So if you didn’t fully comprehend what the good Professor included then ‘Stop‘ and go back and read it all very carefully.

Don’t just be alarmed at Professor Hwang writing:

This anticipated leveling off signals a harsh biological reality: Human population is being curtailed by the Earth’s carrying capacity, the population at which premature death by starvation and disease balances the birth rate.

Or:

Though the detailed future of the human species is impossible to predict, basic facts are certain. Water and food are immediate human necessities. Doubling food production would defer the problems of present-day birth rates by at most a few decades. The Earth supports industrialized standards of living only because we are drawing down the “savings account” of non-renewable resources, including fertile topsoil, drinkable water, forests, fisheries and petroleum.

Be concerned that each and every one of us, as in you and me, can only prevent the train crash by making a change in how we live: Today!

Otherwise ….

In so many ways we are such a clever and inventive race, capable of exploring the farthest reaches of outer space and the innermost aspects of quantum mechanics. Surely we must learn to live sustainably on beautiful Planet Earth!

The slippery food slope.

The second in this three-part focus on food; both for us and our dogs!

A republication, within the terms of The Conversation site, of an article that was originally published on June 26th, 2018.

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Why it’s time to curb widespread use of neonicotinoid pesticides

By  Associate Professor of Entomology and Extension Specialist, Pennsylvania State University

Planting season for corn and soybeans across the U.S. corn belt is drawing to a close. As they plant, farmers are participating in what is likely to be one of the largest deployments of insecticides in United States history.

Almost every field corn seed planted this year in the United States – approximately 90 million acres’ worth – will be coated with neonicotinoid insecticides, the most widely used class of insecticides in the world. The same is true for seeds in about half of U.S. soybeans – roughly 45 million acres and nearly all cotton – about 14 million acres. In total, by my estimate, these insecticides will be used across at least 150 million acres of cropland, an area about the size the Texas.

Neonicotinoids are very good at killing insects. In many cases they require only parts per billion, equivalent to a few drops of insecticide in a swimming pool of water.

In recent years, concerns have been raised about the influence of neonicotinoids on bee populations. As an applied insect ecologist and extension specialist who works with farmers on pest control, I believe the focus on bees has obscured larger concerns. In my view, U.S. farmers are using these pesticides far more heavily than necessary, with potential negative impacts on ecosystems that are poorly understood.

Pesticides on seeds 

Most neonicotinoids in the United States are used to coat field crop seeds. Their role is to protect against a relatively small suite of secondary insect pests – that is, not the main pests that tend to cause yield loss. National companies or seed suppliers apply these coatings, so that when farmers buy seed, they just have to plant it.

The percentage of corn and soybean acreage planted with neonicotinoid seed coatings has increased dramatically since 2004. By 2011, over 90 percent of field corn and 40 percent of soybeans planted were treated with a neonicotinoid. Between 2011 and 2014, the area treated crept toward 100 percent for corn and 50 percent for soybeans. And the mass of neonicotinoids deployed in each crop doubled, indicating that seed suppliers applied about twice as much insecticide per seed. Unfortunately, many farmers are unaware of what is coated on their seeds, while others like the peace of mind that comes from an apparently better protected seed.

Unlike most insecticides, neonicotinoids are water soluble. This means that when a seedling grows from a treated seed, its roots can absorb some of the insecticide that coated the seed. This can protect the seedling for a limited time from insects. But only a small fraction of the insecticide applied to seeds is actually taken up by seedlings. For example, corn seedlings only take up about 2 percent, and it only persists in the plant for two to three weeks. The critical question is where the rest goes.

Clothianidin is a neonicotinoid used almost exclusively as a coating on seed corn. Maps from USGS.

Pervading the environment

Because neonicotinoids are water soluble, the leftover insecticide not taken up by plants can easily wash into nearby waterways. Neonicotinoids from seed coatings are now routinely found polluting streams and rivers around the country.

Here it is likely that they are poisoning and killing off some of the aquatic insects that are vital food sources for fishes, birds and other wildlife. In the Netherlands, neonicotinoids in surface waters have been associated with widespread declines in insectivorous bird populations – a sign that concentrations of these insecticides are having strong effects on food webs.

Neonicotinoids also can strongly influence pest and predator populations in crop fields. My lab’s research has revealed that use of coated seeds can indirectly reduce crop yield by poisoning insect predators that usually kill slugs, which are important crop pests in mid-Atlantic corn and soybeans fields.

More broadly, planting coated seeds generally decreases populations of insect predators in crop fields by 15 to 20 percent. These predatory insects can eat insect pests, such as black cutworm and armyworm, that can reduce yield. Crop fields with fewer resident predators are more vulnerable to pest infestations.

Slugs, shown here on a soybean plant, are unaffected by neonicotinoids, but can transmit the insecticides to beetles that are important slug predators. Nick Sloff/Penn State University, CC BY-ND

An exaggerated need

Neonicotinoid advocates point to reports – often funded by industry – which argue that these products provide value to field crop agriculture and farmers. However, these sources typically assume that insecticides of some type are needed on every acre of corn and soybeans. Therefore, their value calculations rest on comparing neonicotinoid seed coatings to the cost of other available insecticides.

History shows that this assumption is clearly faulty. In the decade before neonicotinoid seed coatings entered the market, only about 35 percent of U.S. corn acres and 5 percent of soybean acres were treated with insecticides. In other words, pest populations did not cause economically significant harm very often.

Importantly, the pest complex attacking corn today is more or less the same as it was in the 1990s. This suggests that it is not necessary to treat hundreds of millions of acres of crops with neonicotinoid seed coatings.

Neonicotinoids can harm birds via multiple pathways, sometimes in very small quantities.

From overkill to moderation

Should the United States follow the European Union’s lead and pass a broad ban on neonicotinoids? In my view, action this drastic is not necessary. Neonicotinoids provide good value in controlling critical pest species, particularly in vegetable and fruit production. However, their use on field crops needs to be reined in.

In the Canadian province of Ontario, growers can only use neonicotinoid seed treatments on 20 percent of their acres. This seems like a good start, but does not accommodate farmers’ needs very well.

Integrated Pest Management (IPM), a control strategy based on using pesticides only when they are economically justified, offers valuable guidelines. It was introduced in the late 1950s in response to issues stemming from overuse of insecticides, including environmental damage and pest populations that had evolved resistance. Field-crop growers have a good history of using IPM, but current use of neonicotinoids ignores pest risk and conflicts with this approach.

To implement IPM in field crops with neonicotinoids, seed companies need to acknowledge that the current approach is overkill and poses serious environmental hazards. Extension entomologists will then need to provide growers with unbiased information on strengths and limitations of neonicotinoids, and help farmers identify crop acres that will benefit from their use. Finally, the agricultural industry needs to eliminate practices that encourage unnecessary use of seed coatings, such as bundling together various seed-based pest management products, and provide more uncoated seeds in their catalogs.

These steps could end the ongoing escalation of neonicotinoid use and change the goal from “wherever possible” to “just enough.”

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It’s enough to make one give up!!

What a great man he was!

I am, of course, referring to the recent death of Stephen Hawking.

There’s no way that I can add anything to the widespread reporting of the very sad death of the theoretical physicist, cosmologist and author Professor Stephen Hawking.

Except, possibly, this interesting quirk of fate.

For this great man died yesterday: March 14th.

The very same day that another very famous man, the German-born Albert Einstein, was born. As in March 14th. Albeit, Stephen Hawking’s death being 139 years after the birth of the 1921 winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics.

Did you also know that Professor Hawking was a great dog lover!

I was very pleased that The Conversation blog site released a wonderful tribute to Stephen Hawking. The item opens, thus:

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Acclaimed British theoretical physicist, cosmologist and author Stephen Hawking has died aged 76. Hawking is best known for his work on black holes, which revolutionised our understanding of the universe.

Hawking passed away today peacefully at his home in Cambridge, his family confirmed in a statement:

We are deeply saddened that our beloved father passed away today. He was a great scientist and an extraordinary man whose work and legacy will live on for many years.

His courage and persistence with his brilliance and humour inspired people across the world. He once said, “It would not be much of a universe if it wasn’t home to the people you love.” We will miss him forever.


Read more: A timeline of Stephen Hawking’s remarkable life


Hawking was born on January 8, 1942, in Oxford, England. In 1963 he was diagnosed with ALS, a form of Motor Neurone Disease, and later confined to a wheelchair and forced to communicate via a computerised voice. But he continued his theoretical work and was outspoken on many things over much of his life.

Tributes have been pouring in on social media for the scientist, who made complex science accessible to everyone in his 1988 bestselling book A Brief History of Time.

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Do read the rest of that article. I will take the tribute from Alice Gorman that closes The Conversation article to close today’s post.

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Alice Gorman, Senior Lecturer in archaeology and space studies, Flinders University

There are few scientists who reach as far into popular culture as Stephen Hawking did. His research tackled the biggest of big questions – the nature of time, space and the universe we live in.

Sometimes it feels like science is losing ground in the modern world, but people still look to the stars for answers about who we are and how we come to be here.

Hawking’s bestselling A Brief History of Time made cosmology accessible to people and brought black holes out of the shadows and into the public imagination.

Personally I’ll miss his appearances on The Big Bang Theory, where he could out-nerd the nerds, and also provide some often necessary common sense. It was always great to see a world-class scientist just having fun.

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What a very great man he was!

Our internet safety!

Completely overwhelmed by all you wonderful followers.

Yesterday, around mid-morning time, the number of good persons who are following this blog reached 3,000!

That is both wonderful and hugely generous of each and every one of you that ‘subscribes’ to this place.

I was going to publish another guest post but will delay that for twenty-four hours.

For as a mark of respect for all of you online people who have signed up to follow Learning from Dogs I want to republish a recent item that appeared on The Conversation site.

Here it is. Republished within the terms of The Conversation.

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Improve your internet safety: 4 essential reads

by    Science + Technology Editor, The Conversation US

On Feb. 6, technology companies, educators and others mark Safer Internet Day and urge people to improve their online safety. Many scholars and academic researchers around the U.S. are studying aspects of cybersecurity and have identified ways people can help themselves stay safe online. Here are a few highlights from their work.

1. Passwords are a weakness

With all the advice to make passwords long, complex and unique – and not reused from site to site – remembering passwords becomes a problem, but there’s help, writes Elon University computer scientist Megan Squire:

“The average internet user has 19 different passwords. … Software can help! The job of password management software is to take care of generating and remembering unique, hard-to-crack passwords for each website and application.”

That’s a good start.

2. Use a physical key

To add another layer of protection, keep your most important accounts locked with an actual physical key, writes Penn State-Altoona information sciences and technology professor Jungwoo Ryoo:

“A new, even more secure method is gaining popularity, and it’s a lot like an old-fashioned metal key. It’s a computer chip in a small portable physical form that makes it easy to carry around. The chip itself contains a method of authenticating itself.”

Just don’t leave your keys on the table at home.

3. Protect your data in the cloud

Many people store documents, photos and even sensitive private information in cloud services like Google Drive, Dropbox and iCloud. That’s not always the safest practice because of where the data’s encryption keys are stored, explains computer scientist Haibin Zhang at University of Maryland, Baltimore County:

“Just like regular keys, if someone else has them, they might be stolen or misused without the data owner knowing. And some services might have flaws in their security practices that leave users’ data vulnerable.”

So check with your provider, and consider where to best store your most important data.

4. Don’t forget about the rest of the world

Sadly, in the digital age, nowhere is truly safe. Jeremy Straub from North Dakota State University explains how physical objects can be used to hijack your smartphone:

“Attackers may find it very attractive to embed malicious software in the physical world, just waiting for unsuspecting people to scan it with a smartphone or a more specialized device. Hidden in plain sight, the malicious software becomes a sort of ‘sleeper agent’ that can avoid detection until it reaches its target.”

It’s a reminder that using the internet more safely isn’t just a one-day effort.

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So be safe all of you! It’s a very different world to that of twenty or more years ago!

The view from across the pond!

The power of unanticipated outcomes.

I am referring to the result of the British election that was held last Thursday.

Now I am well aware that many readers will not have the same relationship with the outcomes of British elections as your faithful scribe. But I am also aware that we live in a very connected world. I am also acutely aware that for many, many years I was a devoted listener to the 15-minute weekly radio broadcast on the BBC by Alistair Cooke Letter from America.

So for me, and many others I don’t doubt, the views of America as to what goes on across the pond are just as fascinating today as they have always been.

But in the absence of dear Mr. Cooke (20 November 1908 – 30 March 2004) passing on his experienced assessment on what the outcomes of British elections mean for America then I turn to a recent item on The Conversation site and republished here within the terms of that site.

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How populism explains May’s stunning UK election upset: Experts react

June 9, 2017 6.04am EDT

Editor’s note: U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May’s election gamble failed badly as her Conservatives lost 12 seats, leaving them with 318, shy of a majority. It was a stunning loss for a party earlier projected to gain dozens of seats. Without a majority, the Conservatives will have to rely on another party to govern – known as a hung Parliament. If they’re unable to forge a coalition, rival Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn – whose party gained 31 seats – would be able to give it a go. We asked two experts to offer their insights on what Americans should make of the election and its results.

May had a bad night and may face a struggle over her party’s leadership

Tories’ growing populism begets a power struggle

Charles Hankla, George State University

The results of this election show how similar, and yet how different, British politics are from what is happening in America.

As in the United States, there has been an explosion of populism in Britain, most recently evidenced by the Brexit referendum. This new political force is translating into less liberal policies from the major parties.

In continental Europe, the new populism is mostly embodied by the resurgent far right. But in Britain, as in America, it is being filtered through the existing two-party system – though the U.K.‘s smaller parties do complicate the electoral map.

To accommodate the political winds, May and her Conservatives decided to shift their electoral strategy away from Margaret Thatcher’s pro-market economic approach toward a greater focus on immigration, security and economic nationalism.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, for his part, deserted the more centrist “New Labour” ideas of Tony Blair in favor of a more robust form of social democracy.

The American left, like its British counterpart, has also become increasingly skeptical of unbridled markets. But among Republicans, a traditional hostility to “big government” makes pro-worker redistributive policies, some of which the Tories have adopted to win votes, hard to stomach. For this reason, populism on the American right has mostly taken the form of protectionist and anti-immigrant policies, as embodied by Donald Trump.

Yesterday’s results were devastating for May and indicate that the Conservatives were ultimately unable to balance their new populist message with their traditional support for neo-liberal policies.

Corbyn, for his part, will use this unexpected victory (of sorts) to solidify his hold over the Labour Party and to move it further to the left.

It remains to be seen whether the election will result in a minority or a coalition government, or whether the parties will be well and truly deadlocked. Whatever happens, the British electorate, like its cousin across the pond, has shown itself to be highly polarized.

Still, at a minimum, Britain’s parliamentary structure, along with the ability of the Labour leadership to co-opt disillusioned voters, seems to have spared Britain the fate of America – the takeover of government by a populist insurgent.

Corbyn and his Labour Party had reasons to smile on election night. AP Photo/Frank Augstein

For US companies, it’s business as usual

Terrence Guay, Pennsylvania State University

So now that we know the results, what are the implications for U.S. business interests in the U.K., America’s seventh-biggest trading partner?

May took a calculated political risk and lost. While the market reaction has been severe, with the pound plunging, it’s nothing new to companies, which take calculated risks like that every day – some pay off and some do not.

So first of all, U.S. corporate executives will need to take a deep breath. Assuming a combination of other parties do not cobble together at least 322 seats – despite winning seven seats, Northern Ireland’s Sinn Fein will not send MPs to London – the Conservatives will dominate a coalition government and have considerable sway over policy.

This means a “hard Brexit,” as outlined by May in January, and as seen in the European Union’s tough negotiating guidelines, is unlikely to change. But this is what most U.S. companies have been planning for anyway since last June’s Brexit vote. Many companies, particularly banks and financial institutions, are already planning to move some of their U.K. operations to other EU countries to take advantage of the single market rules.

This process will continue no matter who’s in power, since only the low-polling Liberal Democrat and Green parties promised a Brexit revote.

Second, a weakened Conservative Party will need more foreign friends, and that includes U.S. companies. Since Brexit, some foreign businesses have threatened to downsize or close their U.K. operations as leverage for obtaining government subsidies. Expect more companies to use this strategy with a weaker U.K. government.

As I argue in my recent book, the business environment of Europe is much more than the U.K. market, and U.S. companies have become increasingly aware of this since Brexit.

In other words, it’s business as usual, and that means the continued segmenting of companies’ U.K. and EU strategies, regardless of who is governing in London.

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Expect things to continue to be interesting for some time. Or as more eloquently put by Tariq Ramadan “Times have changed; so must the lenses through which we see the political future.”

Back to Alistair Cooke. There are many of his broadcasts available on the BBC Radio website and on YouTube.

I’m closing with just a small part of Charlie Rose interviewing Alistair Cooke in May, 1996.

Uploaded on Sep 25, 2011

Tuesday, May 7, 1996
Charlie Rose: An interview with Alistair Cooke
Alistair Cooke celebrates the 50 year anniversary of his BBC broadcast, “Letter from America”, a 15-minute talk about life in America for British listeners.

Recorded some twenty-one years ago. Somethings don’t seem to change!

Happy Endings!

All we all want is more good news than the other variety!

My sub-heading offers a great introduction to this recent essay over on The Conversation site. Republished within the terms of that site.

I don’t need to waffle on!

You all have a wonderful weekend.

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Will optimistic stories get people to care about nature?

By    David H. Smith Conservation Research Fellow, Georgia State University

May 7, 2017

Nature doesn’t make the news often these days. When it does, the story usually revolves around wildlife on the brink, record-setting climate extremes or ruined landscapes. However, that is not the whole story. There is also good news, but it often receives little attention.

It is easy to see how bleak accounts of the state of the planet can overwhelm people and make them feel hopeless. What is the point of even trying if the world is going down the drain anyway?

To muster public and political support on a scale that matches our environmental challenges, research shows that negative messaging is not the most effective way forward. As a conservation scientist and social marketer, I believe that to make the environment a mainstream concern, conservation discussions should focus less on difficulties. Instead we should highlight the growing list of examples where conservation efforts have benefited species, ecosystems and people living alongside them.

People’s Climate March, New York, New York, Sept. 21, 2014. CIFOR/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

The power of positive messages

This question is not new. Professionals in many fields have to consider how to frame their messages to maximize their impact. For example, public health agencies can make positive recommendations that emphasize benefits of being disease-free, or use negative messages that focus on the consequences of disease. A 2008 meta-analysis of 60 health communication studies concluded that messages focused on loss were less likely to be effective than positive messages.

Another study examined ads designed to persuade income support recipients to report their incomes. It concluded that messages focused on fear, shame or guilt could generate emotional backlash, in which people rationalized decisions to protect themselves from feeling ashamed of their behavior. This approach also caused emotional saturation that led people to “switch off” from the message because of its negativity.

Environmental advocates also confront this challenge. Much discussion has centered on the issue of climate change, where a number of scholars and advocates assert that doom-and-gloom messaging has not been effective. Yet until recently, we have not asked the same question about how we frame nature conservation.

Lost and found species

Today a growing number of scholars and activists are working to create a positive vision for protecting wildlife and wild places. One key effort started in 2014 with the launch of a marine conservation movement called Ocean Optimism, which works to “create a new narrative of hope for our oceans,” and by doing so, to help move towards “a sustainable future for our seas.”

In April 2017 the Earth Optimism Summit, organized by the Smithsonian Institution, brought together environmentalists, scientists, industry and the media to shift the global conservation movements focus away from problems and toward solutions. What started as a single event in Washington, D.C. soon turned into a truly global movement, with about 30 sister events in countries including Colombia, New Zealand and Hong Kong.

Lost & Found – Author provided

This effort has kick-started a range of initiatives that are all about communicating conservation bright spots to as many people as possible. One, which I co-founded, is the Lost & Found project, sponsored by the Society for Conservation Biology and the British Ecological Society. This online storytelling initiative focuses on a particularly inspiring kind of good news: rediscovering species that once were thought to be long extinct. After all, what can be more rousing than recovering something unique that you thought was lost forever?

Every year numerous species thought to have disappeared are rediscovered. Over the past century more than 300 species have been rediscovered, mostly in the tropics. On average, these species were missing for about 60 years before being rediscovered. Most rediscovered species have restricted ranges and small populations, which means they are usually highly threatened.

Lost & Found – Author provided

Our goal is not only to tell good stories, but also to showcase the dedication and determination of adventurers who lead these improbable quests and rewrite the history of species they care deeply about. While not every reader may be interested in a red-crested tree rat or a golden-fronted bower bird, all humans are curious about other people.

Lost & Found is making content available in various formats, including text, comics and soon, video animations. This helps make the stories more accessible to people who are not instinctively inclined to read about nature. Currently we have 13 stories freely available online that feature diverse species, from squirrels and toads to bats and birds. They cover a wide geographic range, from Latin America and Oceania to North America and Southeast Asia.

The response has been tremendously positive. More than 1,000 people from over 50 countries visited the website in its first 10 days. Some of our more popular stories, such as the Bulmer’s Fruit Bat and the Cave Splayfoot Salamander, are animals that would commonly not be considered particularly charismatic.

Getting these inspirational rediscoveries into the hands of as many people as possible is a first step toward creating a more positive vision for Earth’s future. The timeless principles of storytelling seem like the right place to start. After all, who doesn’t love a happy ending?

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Did you note the name of that website!!

Lost & Found. Go visit it and enjoy these wonderful happy endings!