Thomas R. O'Donnell

Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Paper: Too much precaution stilts innovation, could perpetuate hunger

In Uncategorized on July 14, 2013 at 6:08 pm
Caution tape

Photo credit: Robert Couse-Baker via photopin cc

I’m a pretty careful guy. I wear my seatbelt, floss my teeth, and look both ways before crossing the street. These precautions keep me safe and healthy.

Precautions are generally prudent, wise and forward-looking. We all want to be safe as possible. Why risk a bad outcome?

This is a simple way to consider the Precautionary Principle, an approach regulators often use to consider new technology. It’s best, they say, to be careful, lest unexpected, unwanted consequences crop up. What can be wrong with that?

Plenty, a new report from an Ames-based agricultural policy think tank says. Citing a long string of academic papers and case studies, it blasts misapplication of the Precautionary Principle for blocking technology like genetic engineering of grains while ignoring the costs: less food for a growing population, less income for rural farmers and greater environmental harm.

The principle is ambiguous, arbitrarily applied, and biased against new technologies, the paper says, and its consequences have been mostly negative. It ignores technology’s many benefits while focusing on its risks, no matter how small.

“The [principle] has been tried but has failed as a risk management strategy,” the authors say. “It is time to move beyond it” – a conclusion some environmentalists are sure to challenge.

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Roundup: Obsessive mice, strange quasicrystals and the “peckscreen” (with video)

In Uncategorized, University research on June 16, 2013 at 2:19 pm
High-energy X-ray diffraction patterns from a single grain of iodine-gadolinium-cadmium taken at Argonne National Laboratory's powerful X-ray device, the Advanced Photon Source.

High-energy X-ray diffraction patterns from a
single grain of iodine-gadolinium-cadmium taken at Argonne National Laboratory’s powerful X-ray device, the Advanced Photon Source, with the beam parallel to the grain’s five-fold axis. Scientists can tell something about a material’s structure by the way it diffracts X-rays, with more powerful sources providing greater detail.

For this post, here’s a roundup of a few interesting Iowa science items over the last couple weeks, including obsessive-compulsive and obese mice, a new family of quasicrystals and pigeons pecking touchscreens. (In this case, shouldn’t they be called “peckscreens”?)

If you’re not in the fields associated with these projects, you may not have heard of them. As with a lot of other Iowa science, they didn’t get a lot of attention here at home.

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NASA flood study splashes down in Iowa

In Uncategorized, University research on June 11, 2013 at 1:17 am
NPOL radar south of Waterloo, Iowa, under a large anvil cloud with mammatus clouds.

NASA’s NPOL radar in late May, located south of Waterloo, Iowa, under a large anvil cloud with mammatus clouds. Copyright Brenda Dolan, Colorado State University.

If you want to study rainfall and floods to help improve satellite predictions of both, you couldn’t choose a better place this year than Iowa.

But Witold Krajewski and the researchers at the University of Iowa’s Iowa Flood Center didn’t know that last year, when they planned the project with NASA’S Goddard Space Flight Center.

Krajewski, the flood center’s director, was persuading NASA to base its study in Iowa because the state has no mountains and sea coasts, which sometimes make it difficult for radar to distinguish rainfall from other things. “We do have floods,” Krajewski says he told the NASA collaborators. “I wasn’t wishing for a flood, but I was saying this when we were in a drought.”

NASA took a chance, despite 2012’s dry weather, and it’s paid off with a rush of data that’s expected to improve computer forecast models’ ability to predict flooding. The study’s observational phase wraps up this week, after employing some powerful radar and a small army of rain gauges and soil moisture sensors.

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Checking the nursery in a baby star boom

In Uncategorized, University research on June 9, 2013 at 1:28 pm
Infrared composite image of NGC 6334, the Cat's Paw Nebula.

In this composite infrared image of NGC 6334, pink shows gas and dust that make up the nebula, illuminated by bright high-mass stars. Many young stars appear yellow to red and most are found buried within the dark clouds extending from the upper left to the lower right. High-mass stars peek into view by carving out bubbles within the dense clouds of gas and dust that formed them. Click on the image for a high-resolution version. Credit: Sarah Willis, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics; NASA/Jet propulsion Laboratory at Caltech/Spitzer Science Center; Cerro-Tololo Inter-American Observatory/National Optical Astronomical Observatory/Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy/National Science Foundation.

Scorpius is one of the few constellations I can regularly pick out in the summer sky. It often sits low on the southern horizon, with two bright stars marking its pincers and the red multiple star Antares highlighting its long body.

Scorpius, I learned last week, also is home to a star nursery. It’s difficult for amateurs to see, but Iowa State University graduate student Sarah Willis says it’s one of the Milky Way’s most active star-forming regions. In a paper delivered last week at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Indianapolis, Willis described this “star burst,” which is generating tens of thousands of new objects. Read the rest of this entry »

Riding a robot to a world title

In Uncategorized on May 26, 2013 at 9:30 pm
beta team_picture

Team Beta, from left: Tanvi Yenna, Sidd Somayajula, Jordan Burklund, Chase Schweitzer, Saketh Undurty, Daniel Miller, Annie Howard

In the tradition of Gabrielle Douglas and Shawn Johnson, West Des Moines has produced another world champion.

This team, however, isn’t receiving nearly the attention or accolades, although the competition was equally demanding and the culmination of years of work. It’s unlikely you’ll see these competitors on a Wheaties box, on “Dancing With The Stars” or making product endorsements.

But you may soon see them designing computers, teaching English or running a corporation. They crossed oceans – remotely ­– to reach the pinnacle.

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Snail episode illustrates science news’ slow crawl

In Uncategorized, University research on April 22, 2013 at 5:36 pm
snail dime

The tiny shells of the New Zealand mud snail. U.S. Geological Survey photo.

Since I posted it about a week ago, more than 2,000 visitors have read my report on the conservative criticism directed at University of Iowa professors Maurine Neiman and John Logsdon. Along with Jeffrey Boore at the University of California, Berkeley, they study the genetic makeup of two genetic lines of a New Zealand snail, one of which reproduces sexually and the other asexually.

Their goal is to elucidate the genetic foundation for sexual reproduction. But conservative websites, bloggers and pundits from Michelle Malkin to Fox News blasted the four-year, National Science Foundation grant as a waste of tax money for studying “snail sex.” The big number of hits (thanks in large part to Logsdon and Neiman spreading the word) indicates how interested people are in the intersection of science, government and politics.

What’s surprising is how big this was on conservative media, but how other press – even Iowa news operations – missed the story. Read the rest of this entry »

STEM goes for the state title

In Uncategorized on March 10, 2013 at 2:59 pm
Iowa Governor's STEM Advisory Council

Iowa Governor’s STEM Advisory Council

There was a lot going on in downtown Des Moines on March 5. At the Wells Fargo Arena, the state boys basketball tournament was attracting droves of fans, screaming at the top of their lungs.

Next door, at the Veterans Memorial Community Choice Credit Union Convention Center (whew!), a couple hundred educators, industry representatives and state officials gathered for the second Iowa STEM Summit, organized by the Governor’s STEM Advisory Council.

There wasn’t screaming, but just as much cheering.

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Digging into a crater’s past in Decorah

In Uncategorized on February 21, 2013 at 4:05 am

drillJust about everyone from Iowa knows about the famed Manson Impact Structure, a divot 23 miles across at the point where Humboldt, Webster, Calhoun and Pocahontas counties meet. Researchers say a meteor smacked the area about 74 million years ago, leaving what the Iowa Geological & Water Survey says is “the largest intact, on-shore meteorite crater in the United States.”

Well, I’m not sure how big the news is here, but earlier this week the Washington Post reported on research suggesting there’s another, smaller (4 miles across) crater in the vicinity of Decorah, in Iowa’s far northeast corner, giving the state an imaginary face a little like Popeye’s.

The story is well done, but doesn’t delve into the interesting Iowan who helped find the first clues of the crater’s existence.

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