Archives for science



Fighting Poachers From the Lab

Wildlife activists have a new method for fighting Africa’s increasingly bold elephant poachers.  Historically, scientists and governments have struggled to determine whether a piece of ivory was poached illegally or was obtained before the 1989 international ban on ivory trading, which has left some African governments with enormous stockpiles of ivory to manage and protect.  But a team of scientists recently determined that it’s possible to use the amount of radiocarbon in an ivory tusk to determine what year the animal died — and, by extension, whether the ivory was illegally poached.  

“The amount of radiocarbon in the atmosphere nearly doubled during nuclear weapons tests from 1952 to 1962, which steadily dropped after tests were restricted to underground. This has been dubbed ‘the bomb-curve,’” explains a BBC article on the study.  The resulting significant variations in atmospheric radiocarbon allow for highly accurate dating.  Scientists also hope that the technique will help shed light on poaching hotspots.  Kevin Uno, the study’s lead author, told the BBC that the technique “would dovetail very nicely with DNA testing which tells you the region of origin, but not the date.”



The Economics of Higher Education, Part 1: Science Is Hard

If you are the sort of person who worries that the U.S. is not producing enough college graduates with science degrees, it’s worth wondering exactly why that is. In a new working paper, Ralph Stinebrickner and Todd R. Stinebrickner offer a compelling answer: science is hard. Here’s the abstract (sorry, full paper seems to be gated).

Taking advantage of unique longitudinal data, we provide the first characterization of what college students believe at the time of entrance about their final major, relate these beliefs to actual major outcomes, and, provide an understanding of why students hold the initial beliefs about majors that they do. The data collection and analysis are based directly on a conceptual model in which a student’s final major is best viewed as the end result of a learning process.  We find that students enter school quite optimistic/interested about obtaining a science degree, but that relatively few students end up graduating with a science degree.  The substantial overoptimism about completing a degree in science can be attributed largely to students beginning school with misperceptions about their ability to perform well academically in science.

Do we file this item under “overconfidence” or “good gatekeeping”?



FREAK-est Links

1. Six female scientists who didn’t get their due.

2. Why kids in France don’t get ADHD.

3. When averages don’t tell the story: the U.S. has many of the world’s brightest students, and also a lot of low-scoring students.

4. Reverse colonialism: high unemployment at home drives Spanish youth to Latin America.

5. The psychology of hoarding. Read More »



The Quants and the Airlines Versus the Public

Baggage fees are a small part of the misery of American air travel. There’s also connecting flights, which, to paraphrase the Nuremberg judgment, contain within themselves the accumulated evil of the whole. For if air travel were pleasant, who would mind changing planes and spending more time in the system?

Instead, the airlines make us pay to avoid the extra hours — giving airlines an incentive to make air travel less pleasant. But once in a while you can beat the system.

For a memorial service at short notice, I once had to fly with my 2-year-old daughter to New York (and throw away our return flight to Boston). The price of a nonstop, one-way flight from Phoenix, Arizona to Newark, New Jersey: $1200 (for two people).

But what if I flew slightly farther, allegedly changed planes in Newark, but just left the airport? So I went back to airline’s website and asked for a one-way flight to Manchester, New Hampshire. It was only $400 (for two people). Not only did the flight connect in Newark, but the Phoenix–Newark leg was the same flight that cost $1200 nonstop! Read More »



Faster Than Light: A Guest Post

I recently had occasion to e-chat with Rocky Kolb, a well-regarded astronomer and astrophysicist at the University of Chicago. Talk turned, of course, to the recent likely discovery of the Higgs boson — but, as Kolb talk about that, he raised an even broader and more interesting point about scientific discovery.

He was good enough to write up his thoughts in a guest blog post that I am pleased to present below:

 

Faster Than Light
By Rocky Kolb

After the news coverage of the past week, everyone now understands what a Higgs particle is, and why physicists were so excited about the July 4th announcement of its probable discovery at CERN, a huge European physics accelerator laboratory.  (The disclaimer “probable” is because it could turn out that the new particle seen at CERN is not the Higgs after all, but an imposter particle with properties like the Higgs.)

For a few days it was common to see, hear, or read my colleagues struggling to explain why the discovery of a Higgs particle is a triumph for science.  But after a week of physics in the news, the media has moved on to cover the Tom Cruise-Katie Holmes divorce and shark sightings near beaches.  Perhaps all the public will be left with is a memory that there was a triumph for science.  Science works: theories are tested and confirmed by experiment.

I think that the CERN Higgs discovery was, indeed, a triumph for science.  However, the Higgs was not the only dramatic announcement at CERN in the past year.  But the other dramatic result is something many physicists would rather forget. Read More »



How to Make a Better Athlete

Olympic athletes have become increasingly reliant on scientists as advisers. A Wired article by Mark McClusky explores the efforts of sports scientists to improve athletic performance as gains have become harder to achieve. The Australian Institute of Sport is leading the charge; its success is best-demonstrated by an example from the skeleton, a sledding event that was recently reintroduced as an Olympic event:

They determined that one significant predictor of success had nothing to do with the sled itself or even the skill of the pilot. The faster a competitor pushed the sled through the 30-meter start zone before jumping on it, the better they performed. So researchers set up a national testing campaign, looking for women with backgrounds in competitive sports who excelled at the 30-meter sprint. They also evaluated candidates to see how well they responded to feedback and coaching. Eventually, they picked a group of 10 athletes—including track sprinters, a water skier, and several surf lifesavers, an Australian sport that requires sprinting through sand.

Read More »



A Cheaper Way to Stop Malaria?

Scientists are working on genetically altering bugs  to eliminate the spread of diseases like malaria and the West Nile virus. A  Pacific Standard article describes the research:

Some researchers, including the Australians and groups at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, are smuggling a hitchhiking bacteria into the dengue-carrying mosquitoes that prevents them from passing on the virus. A British team is tinkering with DNA to either significantly reduce the lifespan of malaria-carrying mosquitoes (known as Anopheles) or kill females when they are just embryos. Either method would cause a population crash. In James’s lab in Southern California, scientists are working on similar techniques.

What these methods all share is the promise of blanket protection: they can theoretically kill or disable mosquitoes that insecticides miss—bugs nesting in hidden pools of water, for instance, or that lay eggs in storm drains or flower pots. What’s more, bioengineering bugs is relatively cheap and doesn’t require toxic pesticides.



The Best Third-Grade Teacher Ever

One of the most important economic issues we face today is how much to spend on education, both individually and as a society. As tax revenues decline due to demographic changes and deteriorating business conditions, municipalities have to make tough choices about which programs to cut, and education is often an early victim. Because we don’t yet have good measures of all the future benefits produced by better education today, school programs are easy targets for cost-cutting measures, especially in lower-income regions where parents are focused on meeting more basic needs and less likely to put up a fight. But experiments like Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone hint at the enormous impact that early educational support can have on lifetime achievement.

I have my own example: Mrs. Ficalora, the best third-grade teacher ever. Read More »