Friday Sci-Fi: Lostronaut

June 5, 2009

Since marine science and space seem pretty tight these days, check out Jonathan Lethem’s lovely and very bleak short story “Lostronaut.” It’s written as letters home from an astronaut stranded on a disintegrating space station with failing plant-based life support, and shouldn’t be read if you’ve got a space-faring loved one.

If reading the story makes you feel sciencey, Eric explored the science behind using plants for life support on the Science Not Fiction blog. But if reading the story makes you want to kick back and feel mournful, listen to Amanda Palmer’s amazing song “Astronaut.” I’m obsessed.*

*Yes, this entire post was an excuse to post this song.


Why you didn’t really want the job, Memorial Day edition

May 25, 2009

One of the worst parts of being a coral reef biologist is that you spend a lot of time underwater noticing things that kinda suck: a band of coral disease here, a creepy algal overgrowth there, a group of herbivorous parrotfish strung up in an abandoned gill net… it adds up to an ever-present, sorrowful feeling on most dives. But sometimes over that background of dull anxiety comes something beyond mere “bummer” status.

Such an experience occurred last fall when I went diving to check on some corals I had gotten to know well over the previous year. (Yes, I know individual coral colonies by their location, shape, surroundings, and the numbers I’ve given them… is that weird?) Tropical Storm (later Hurricane) Omar had spent the previous three days hovering near Curacao, where I do my field research, causing the water between Curacao and Venezuela to slosh around in the channel between them like it was a bathtub.

Mind you, hurricanes are a normal stress for a coral reef. (In this case, we didn’t start the fire, though things may be getting worse on our watch.) So the storm itself wasn’t the issue as much as the fact that the branching shallow-water corals of the Caribbean died off en masse in the 1980s and have failed to make a substantial recovery. You know what hefty, cylindrical coral skeleton fragments look like in a huge pile? Baseball bats. So this should have been less of a surprise… Read the rest of this entry »

Is there a shortage of oceanographers?

May 13, 2009

My father (Hi, Dad!) sent me this NYT article on the Rutgers University glider program. Gliders are little ocean-going robots that dive down, take measurements, and surface to email their data back to you. Since ship time is so expensive, having a glider noodling about on its own is incredibly helpful in figuring out what the ocean is doing. The NYT article definitely brought home the “gliders! yay!” message, but what excited my father was this:

Through its novel glider program, Rutgers is trying to drum up interest in ocean science at a time when federal officials are alarmed about a shortage of scholars in a field considered crucial because of growing concerns about ocean health as a result of climate change and overfishing.

The federal Departments of Commerce and Education, in a report last fall focusing on a branch of marine science that assesses fish stocks, said the National Marine Fisheries Service was “now experiencing a perfect storm.” Citing many imminent retirements, an increased workload and a “decreasing supply” of such scientists, the report called on Congress to bolster financing to expand the number of graduate students.

Really? This doesn’t really jive with the grad student scuttlebutt about the job market – it’s hard to find reliable work. Many of the federal agencies hire postdocs on 1-year contracts, which is extremely stressful for people who need a steady income to raise their family. But nothing would make this grad student happier than the promise of good employment in about 3.5 years, so tell me I’m wrong!

TGIF: Glowy jellyfish-puppies

April 24, 2009

Why make glowy transgenic jellyfish-puppies? Because…because…SCIENCE!

Counting real fish in virtual space

April 15, 2009

Figuring out the health of an ecosystem takes days and days of dirty, difficult fieldwork. You pretty much crawl around in the dirt/mud/mussels, counting all the wee beasties. This is even harder in marine ecosystems, where specialized equipment like boats and nets and dives are needed. (Diving is lots of fun until the 5th hour-long dive in 50 degree water with urchin spines stuck in your knuckles.) And all of this is pretty expensive – just the gasoline to run a small coastal boat can be $100/day, and an oceanographic vessel STARTS at $10,000 per day.

So the idea that the health of ecosystems could be monitored using Teh Powerz of Teh Internets is most intriguing. From an article in Wired Science (sadly, I don’t have access to the original paper):

By trawling scientific list-serves, Chinese fish market websites, and local news sources, ecologists think they can use human beings as sensors by mining their communications.

“If we look at coral reefs, for example, the Internet may contain information that describes not only changes in the ecosystem, but also drivers of change, such as global seafood markets,” said Tim Daw, an ecologist at the UK’s University of East Anglia in a press release about his team’s new paper in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

Like having recreational fishers monitor their catch via Twitter, I think this has great potential for conspicuous, charismatic shallow water species. For example, tropical groupers are targeted for fishing and for recreation, all of whom like to post about catching/eating/viewing a grouper. There might also be potential for identifying emerging fisheries – though of course that hinges on the internets correctly identifying the species, and fish mislabeling is rampant.

But there are obvious limitations. Not all important predators are conspicuous – for example, I can’t imagine that too many random people on the internet are writing about seeing 3-inch predatory marine worms. And as the Wired article points out, people just aren’t very attuned to ecological changes:

In other words, while reporters (or Tweeters) will include individual-level death data in human stories, massive die-offs or flora changes could very well go unnoticed and probably unquantified.

However much I love the internets, crawling the Web can’t take the place of crawling through the mud. Subtle effects like species changes – for example, cold-water barnacles retreating and warm-water barnacles advancing – just can’t be detected without Ye Olde Fieldwork. But I think ecological datamining is absolutely worth trying. If it works, even for just a few species, the speed of detection and low cost could make it incredibly valuable.

Thanks to Serin for the Wired article!

New kid on the ocean blogging block

March 18, 2009

[Edit: I forgot to mention that I learned about Oceans4Ever from Jives at the New Blue. Sorry, Jives!]

Posting will continue to be light as I finish up fellowship applications and finals. So…close…yet so far. In the meantime check out the newest kid (literally) on the ocean blogging block – Oceans4Ever. Written by 9-year-old Alexa and her journalist mom Cindy, Oceans4Ever is debuting with a contest to win a fuzzy plush beluga whale.

After you contemplate Alexa as the Future of Teh Internetz, also check out Daniel Brown’s science blogging manifesto.

Over the past few years, a new development has arisen in the world of science amongst those who wish to purvey the wonders of reality to the general public.

I’m speaking of course about the ascension of the Science Blog.

Many articles have been written on the burgeoning importance of science blogs for the processing and dissemination of scientific knowledge (see references at the bottom of this post). Conferences have been held, letters in scientific journals have been published, and a myriad online conversations have occurred through social media outlets such as twitter and friendfeed.

Despite all that, there still exists an incredibly large and significant portion of the science population that remains unaware of the existence of science blogs, of the vast amounts of knowledge to be gained from following them, and of the potential career advantages obtained from writing a science blog.

What stops population growth?

March 17, 2009

I’ve written before about why I think discussing population control became a taboo, but I’m glad to say I have never heard anyone arguing that poor children should just die. Disgusting.

But in case you have heard that argument, Hans Rosling is here to explain why it’s wrong. And he also explains why he thinks that a permanent world population of 9 billion is inevitable.

Via Anna and Think or Thwim