Archive for February, 2008

February 2008 Rap-Up


Even though
the month was short,
there was no lack
of news to report.

The world’s largest science conference
convened in Beantown,
and we listened to scientists
both new and renowned.

They spoke about sharks
and antarctic invasions,
why there’s no life on Mars
(That took no persuasion).

The Encyclopedia of Life
is online at last
and a spy satellite
was destroyed by a blast.

Midlife suicides
are on the rise,
and a new devil toad
takes the prize for size.

Bats in the Northeast
are falling ill
and you can’t cure depression
with one little pill.

Norway opened
a bank for seeds
and Pakistan blocked
all video feeds.

The choking game
is taking teenage lives.
TB is in Russia
and no one knows why.

Way up in the sky
the space station grew,
and despite a vaccine
we still got the flu.

So even if winter
gives you the blues,
this groundhog promises
six more weeks of news.

— Joseph Caputo and Lauren Rugani

Posted by Joseph, under science rap-up  |  Date: February 29, 2008
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Interview with MIT Professor Walter Lewin


Dr. Walter Lewin, an award-winning science educator and physics professor at MIT, demonstrates the key to a successful science lesson.

Interview and video by Nuño Domínguez and Eva Zadeh at the Boston University Center for Science and Medical Journalism.

Classroom footage provided by MIT

Posted by Joseph, under video  |  Date: February 28, 2008

The Plastic Menace


Plastic Bags

A plastic bag strikes again. (Credit: Joseph Caputo)

Plastic bags are unpredictable. Once they leave the supermarket you never know where they where they will end up.Sometimes they are caught up in trees or fences adding an industrial look to already polluted landscapes. They also clutter rivers and waterways. Many are dumped in landfills where they remain for centuries. Lots of them find their way to the ocean, where they kill whales, dolphins, turtles and other species that mistake them for food. In an uncertain plastic world there is a single sure bet: the odds are nine to one that a bag will end up where it does not belong.

In the United States, 100-billion plastic bags are discarded every year. Not even 1% of the bags are recycled, according to the Worldwatch Institute. A new global reaction against the plastic opulence is rising and some countries are leading the battle with alternatives to one-use bags, taxes and bans. Many nations have realized that free bags are costly and sometimes even deadly. In Bangladesh, huge clogs of polyethylene bags obstructed the drainage systems worsening the 1998 flood that killed 700 people and left 21 million without homes. In 2002, Bangladesh was the first country to ban plastic bags.

Restrictions can also save a lot of money. Plastic bags are made from oil and China expects to save millions of barrels with a ban on free, filmy plastic bags that will start in June this year. Bans are also rising in the United States. San Francisco was the first city to ban the product and Oakland followed suit. Many other cities are considering less radical approaches like the one adopted in New York, which forces large retailers to collect and recycle the plastic sacks.

Economic pressures to consumers also work. The Irish “plastax,” a 30-cent levy, reduced the circulation of plastic bags by 90% and turned convenient plastic bags into annoying extra expenses. The tax also encouraged consumers to choose environmentally savvy containers like cloth bags. That is called BYOB (Bring Your Own Bag), the most sustainable option according to many environmental groups.

Some companies are also taking steps towards a less plasticized world. Ikea denies free bags to their American customers -they can buy them if they want- and Whole-Foods Market will get rid of them next April. Cloth bags seem the most environmentally friendly option. They can last for years and do the job of thousands of plastic bags. But only a small minority currently uses them and it will take more than awareness campaigns to convince the rest of the public.

To reduce the impact of our waste without causing new worries requires balanced and well-thought-out policies. Decision makers can reduce the plastic frenzy with bans or taxes, or lead research projects to find new plastics with no dangerous downsides. Plastic manufacturers and retailers must also join that effort by funding research and undertaking stronger commitments towards serious recycling quotas. Citizens, however, must make changes to their lifestyles by using cloth bags and bringing the plastic stocks under their sinks to recycling spots. Dealing with a ubiquitous source of waste can only be achieved with a global plan involving all stakeholders. That is the only way to be sure plastic bags end up where they belong.

For more information:

– The Progressive Bag Alliance

— Story by Nuño Domínguez

Posted by Joseph, under environment  |  Date: February 27, 2008
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Mr. Caputo Teaches Balance


The 5th installment of “Mr. Caputo Teaches,” my experience as an extracurricular science teacher in elementary and middle schools across Massachusetts.

The search for balance is almost 7,000 years old. Early forms of the weighing scale, the symbol for a Libra and the device held by Lady Justice, were discovered in an Egyptian tomb dating back to 5000 B.C.E. The key to a weighing scale is balance–the point when the pans are equal, the beam is horizontal, the pointer is motionless, and the measure can be taken. This, in scientific terms, is equilibrium.Communicating science effectively is all about balance. In one pan rests entertainment, in the other is information. When the scale dips too far towards information, the piece becomes dull and you’ve lost your reader. When the entertainment outweighs information, the reader enjoys the story, but takes little away.

Finding equilibrium is also essential for science teaching. Recently, I asked my middle school students if they could tell me what makes a good science lesson (one that has balance). In seconds, the hand of a boy wearing gray sweatpants shot up. “Hands-on,” he said. Across the table, a girl with a blonde ponytail said she enjoyed explosions, like the reaction between vinegar and baking soda. I then asked what makes a bad (unbalanced) lesson. The boy in sweatpants summed it up nicely: “When the teacher talks a lot, and then tests you.”

Teaching science in an unbalanced way is not only frustrating for the teacher, but it can turn a student off to science outside the classroom. I next asked the group where they learn science when not in school. Luckily, only one student said she doesn’t see any science outside of class. Most mentioned television programs on the Discovery Channel, or shows like Mythbusters. Others mentioned the Internet, specifically sites like or Surprisingly, about half of the children said their fathers. None mentioned books or magazines.

After this conversation, it was then my task to teach them about balance, but I wanted to try an experiment with this burgeoning YouTube generation. I decided not to be a talking head–I gave a quick explanation of what a balance is, what’s necessary for a weighing scale to work and how it connects to the Early Inventions theme of the class. Then cam the shocker, they would have to build one using only the model and diagrams I provided. They would have full use of all my materials and their classmates, but there was only one rule: I would not help them.

Even though they spent most of the time trading insults and making blobs with the glue guns, by the end of the class, most of them had it. One student with straight black hair even used hers to measure the weight in grams of different quantities of paper clips.

After trying the class this way, I asked for feedback on the experience. “Science takes a long time,” remarked the girl who doesn’t see science outside of the classroom. Others said their projects didn’t work because it didn’t look exactly like the model. The problem was, they did work. Perhaps the students were so used to copying their teachers that when they create something on their own, it felt incorrect. Or maybe, because the lesson was so social, I wasn’t able to incorporate enough information, and thus the lesson was imbalanced. Where can teachers find this balance? Is there a formula, or is each day trial and error with a different set of weights.

Posted by Joseph, under Mr. Caputo  |  Date: February 25, 2008
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Post AAAS: The Future of (Science) Journalism


The Knight Science Journalism Fellowship at MIT, a unique nine-month sabbatical for science writers, celebrated its 25th anniversary this week with a symposium examining journalism’s future. Nearly 200 people attended, many past fellows as well as freelancers, editors and students, all curious (and slightly anxious) to know where the field is heading. The surprise verdict: The future is already here.

For nearly a decade, the Internet has been viewed by print journalists as television was once seen by radio folk – the beginning of the end. We learned from television that multiple mediums can coexist, but the Internet poses the historically unique possibility of convergence, since print, audio, video and more can be accessed in a single space. The intense competition for readers became the least of print media’s worries with the onset of Web. 2.0 whe bloggers and other news aggregators-like Google-have made it impossible for a story to end after it is filed. News today is discussed, dissected and corrected.

This “Digital Age,” as named by Boyce Rensberger, a veteran science journalist and current director of the Knight Fellowship, is an epoch where the journalist is no longer a gatekeeper for scientific information. Now all sorts of facts and fictions are seeping through to a knowledge-hungry public, from the scientist with his own blog, the pharmaceutical-funded documentary or a politician’s book. It is now the role of the science journalist to be an authenticator.

Dianne Lynch, an expert in independent media and dean of journalism at Ithaca College, tried to calm a room of traditional journalists by arguing that journalism is not changing, just the medium “Journalism does not equal newspapers,” she said. “Journalism has never been more dynamic or exciting-it is being conflated with dying business models.” This means the same quality, standards, and dedication to one’s audience will subsist, but the move online requires journalists to frame their work in new ways. This could mean through visuals, graphs, video, podcasts, or 51 other ways to accompany print.

Mindy McAdams, a digital media professor at the University of Florida seconded this train of thought by arguing the 5,000-word piece just does not get read on the Internet. Although there is no data to support this statement, it makes sense. People who go online are looking for specific kinds of information, in particular, entertainment. A science video featuring talking heads does not reach audiences the way an animation or puzzle would.

Not all journalists are ready to accept this news. Carl Zimmer, a freelance writer and widely known blogger, as well as Michael Balter, a contributing writer for Science, expressed concerns that at least one victim of this movement will be writing. They question whether or not the Millenium generation (those 22 and under) are going to absorb the style and content of good writing if they only rely on blogs or short online articles.

Tom Rosensteil, co-author of The Elements of Journalism, was also skeptical. “There is a lot of experimentation going on,” he said. “Lot of risk taking and faddism and some of it is a mistake, overkill or overreaction.” While this may be true, the advocates for new media, those journalists who blog, twitter, Facebook and YouTube are able to earn a decent living, and the explosion of the more successful fads are now defining the Web experience.

To be prepared for what’s to come, science journalism students must be trained not necessarily to produce online content, but to learn how to think digital. They should be able to have a conversation with a graphic artist for a Flash Animation and know the difference between a video for a television broadcast and a video for the Web. Maintaining a blog and developing an online presence is the equivalent to writing obituaries 25 years ago.

Journalism students don’t have anything to fear if they can make this conversion now. Even if newspapers and books are replaced by e-ink and magazines go extinct, there will always be a place for good reporting. Besides, we need journalists for something to blog about.

Posted by Joseph, under AAAS, science writing  |  Date: February 23, 2008
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AAAS: Quantifying Baseball in the Information Age



(Credit: Aspasia Daskalopoulou)

— Story by Lauren Rugani

Statistically, Derek Jeter is the worst defensive shortstop in major league baseball, giving Red Sox fans every right to shout, “Overrated!” when he takes the field at Fenway Park. Ironically, Yankee management parked one of the (statistically) best shortstops in the league, A-Rod, at third base.

A panel of researchers at February’s AAAS meeting in Boston discussed these two sub-fields of baseball statistics – fielding and managerial decision-making – and how mathematics can be applied to analyze and predict performance. This adds to the growing field of “sabrmetrics,” the quantitative and objective study of baseball performance. The term stems from the acronym for the Society for American Baseball Research, and, “adding ‘metrics’ to the end of anything just makes it sound smarter,” joked panelist Shane T. Jensen of the University of Pennsylvania.

Analyzing baseball is anything but a joke, however. Straightforward stats like batting average, on-base percentage and pitchers’ earned run averages are seen everywhere from the back of baseball cards to on-screen graphics during televised baseball games. Since baseball is a less interactive sport than say, football or basketball, much of a player’s stats are largely determined by his own performance. Now, statisticians are including parameters that account for interdependent performance on the field. If Derek Jeter fails to field a ground ball that results in the hitter getting on base, is it because of his poor fielding skills or because he was playing closer to second base than he normally does?

Researchers like Jensen, along with fellow speakers David Pinto and Steve C. Wang of Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, dig deeper to determine whether stats are really a good measure of performance. For example, if Manny Ramirez goes 4-4 (padding his batting average) but none of his hits result in a run and the team loses, is he really worth that multi-million dollar contract?

Jensen’s research goes so far as to include the handedness of both pitcher and batter, the size of the park and the range of the outfielders to determine whether each play should have resulted in an out, based on similar plays from the past. Wang analyzes various managerial tactics such as deciding when to take pitchers out of the game or choosing to steal or bunt.

So does any of this actually matter to anyone other than stat-hungry fans? The researchers say yes. Baseball players make a lot of money, and some of them might not deserve it. Recognitions like the Cy Young Award and the Gold Glove are awarded primarily through subjective voting, and the winners often do not reflect the numbers.
Furthermore, analyzing not only a player’s individual performance but predicting his potential interaction with the rest of the team will help determine whether a player would be a beneficial addition. Compiling stats at the minor league level will help scouts make better decisions if they happen to catch a player on one of his worse days.

However, the researchers don’t see managers trading in chew tobacco for number crunching machines. Baseball involves a lot of gut feelings (like keeping J.D. Drew) that computers can’t provide, especially given that one game, one month, or even one season are extremely small sample sizes for measuring a player’s capabilities.

Posted by Joseph, under AAAS  |  Date: February 21, 2008
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Los Peces: A Boston Music Video


Some of the fishier parts of Boston. The song is Los Peces by Lhasa de Sela. Enjoy!

— Video by Eva Zadeh and Joseph Caputo

Posted by Joseph, under video  |  Date: February 20, 2008
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AAAS: Life on Mars?


Harvard University biologist, Andrew H. Knoll was the final speaker at a Mars exploration symposium held Friday the 15th at the Boston convention of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The title of his talk “Mars as the Abode of Life?” was punctuated with an uncomfortable question mark – a concern for those of us hoping to hear good news about the search for life on Mars.He began comparing the geochemical properties of Earth rocks with Martian rocks. And put forth the idea that since they seem very similar, scientists can draw the conclusion that if life can or cannot live in a certain geochemical environment here on Earth, it probably will or will not be able to live in that same type of environment on Mars.

Five years into their 90-day mission, those spunky little Mars Exploration Rover (MER) bots, Spirit and Opportunity, continue to roll around Mars dutifully transmitting back to earth all that they discover about the red planet. And so far they have told the story that the rocks they’ve studied are mainly sulfates (a common sulfate found on Earth and Mars is Epsomite or Epsom salts). Long story short — the water that once flowed on Mars was very, very salty — so salty in fact that few respectable earth microbes would or could be caught alive in it.

But what about “extreme” environments, you say? Yes, we find lots of evidence for microbial life thriving in extreme environments here on Earth, but Professor Knoll noted that our earthly extreme environments are often located adjacent to less extreme environments – these neighboring environments provide a sort of food subsidy to help those extreme-loving bacteria survive. He noted that here on Earth, extreme environments are rare but Mars appears to be one great big extreme environment. So I guess it looks as if there is no such thing as a free lunch on Mars, either.

In addition to the harshness of the Martian environment, scientists believe that when water flowed on Mars, it was an episodic event as opposed to long-standing surface water — water rising to the surface after a meteorite impact, for example. Many biologists think that life is less likely to evolve under such conditions.

But, there’s a lot of Mars left to explore folks, and on May 25th at 4:40 PST, the spacecraft Phoenix will land on the Martian polar region to dig once again into the Martian soil looking for water and hopefully life.

— Story by Marilyn Rogers

Posted by Joseph, under AAAS  |  Date: February 19, 2008
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AAAS: Viral Forecasting


As President George W. Bush pressures the United States Congress to pass a $5 billion bill to combat HIV/AIDS in Africa, Dr. Nathan E. Wolfe, a professor of epidemiology at the University of California, is pinching pennies to prevent the world’s next pandemic. While large-scale funding is crucial for controlling current outbreaks, the U.S. has been slow to support research that could find new diseases before they find us, said Dr. Wolfe, in a lecture delivered at the AAAS meeting last Sunday.”If your doctor told you that you had all the signs for a heart attack but that he wanted to wait for you to have the heart attack before treating you, you’d find another doctor,” he said.

With funding from a National Institute of Health Pioneer Award, a grant given to “risky” research, Wolfe looks around the world for emerging diseases. The staff at his sites, located primarily in Malaysia, China, Congo and Cameroon, do this by interviewing and collecting blood samples from people who interact with wild animals on a daily basis, especially hunters.

Wolfe’s teams also gather blood samples from wild animals. With the blood, they are building a comprehensive database of viruses, which they use to produce detectors to catch and control new pathogens.

When researchers do find signs of a non-human virus, they try to link the blood to the type of animal the infected person works with. In Africa for example, cases of Simian Foamy Virus in humans, a benign infection with no symptoms, were traced to gorillas.

One surprise from Wolfe’s research is that viruses jump from animal to human quite often. However, because many of these jumps happen in locations far from urban areas, they have been difficult to track. This also has means, even if we cure the existing strains of disease like HIV, there is no guarantee others wouldn’t emerge.

With more interest in preventing pandemics, argues Wolfe, we won’t miss the boat like we did with HIV.

Posted by Joseph, under AAAS, health  |  Date: February 18, 2008
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AAAS Links


Here are some links to stories generated by the AAAS conference around the world:


Crusada un laptop por nino: Negroponte tiene pocas esperanzas en Chile” by Paula Leighton & Natalia Mackenzie, a Boston University Center for Science and Medical journalism student. (El Mercurio: 2/19/08)

El sistema solar tambien tiene mas que ofrecer” by Natalia Mackenzie. (El Mercurio: 2/19/08)


Especies invasoras llegan al ecosistema antartico: El calentamiento del mar acerca al continente helado a uncangrejo depredador de aguas menos frias” by Nuno Dominguez, a Boston University  Center for Science and Medical journalism student. ( 2/19/08)

United Kingdom 

Is HIV beating the scientists?” by Martin Hutchinson. (BBC News: 2/15/08)

Early Mars too salty for life” by Helen Briggs. (BBC News: 2/15/08)

‘Earth No. 2’ lies in deep freeze waiting to be born” by Jonathan Leake. (Times Online: 2/17/08)

‘Hundreds of worlds’ in milky way” by Helen Briggs. (BBC News: 2/17/08)

Birth control for fish” by James Randerson. (The Guardian: 2/17/08)

Caution! Reporters in the room” by Heidi Ledford. (Nature: 2/17/08)

Shark species face extinction, says research” by Nic Fleming. (The UK Telegraph: 2/18/08)

Welcome to the town that will make you lose weight” by Mark Henderson. (Times Online: 2/18/08)

Warm dust increases chances of alien life” by Nic Fleming. (The UK Telegraph: 2/18/08)

Toxins ’cause defects for future generations” by Nick Fleming. (The UK Telegraph: 2/18/108)

Men’s smoking and drinking can damage the health of future children” by Fiona Macrae. (Daily Mail: 2/19/08)

United States

Scientists: Be true to your school (board)” by Michael Balter, a Boston University Center for Science and Medical Journalism professor. (ScienceNOW: 2/15/08)

Antarctic warming creating predator ‘smorgasbord” by Larry O’Hanlon. (Discovery News: 2/15/08)

Human activity affecting oceans worldwide, maps show” by Randolph E. Schmid. (AP: 2/15/08)”Even oceans not spared by humans: study” by Abhishek Garg.(The Money Times: 2/15/08)

Saturn’s Titan found to be factory of organic chemicals” by Kandy Ringer. (BBS News: 2/15/08)

Phytomining and the biomass backlash” by Alexis Madrigal. (Wired Science: 2/16/08)

Poverty mars formation of infant brains” by Clive Cookson. (Financial Times: 2/16/08)

50 years of the space age” by Matt Ford. (Ars Technical: 2/16/08)

Large-scale collaborations in physics” by Matt Ford. (Ars Technical: 2/16/08)

Presidential campaigns call for big boost of research funding” by Eli Kinitsch. (ScienceNOW: 2/16/08)

’08 may prove to be a watershed year in large-scale physics” by Eric Schwartz. (Arizona Daily Star: 2/17/08)

The other carbon: Reducing black carbon’s role in global warming” by Alex Madrigal. (Wired Science: 2/17/08)”The Chinese government’s plans for nanotechnology” by Alex Madrigal. (Wired Science: 2/17/08)

Why we suck at predicting the future” by Greta Lorge. (Wired Science: 2/17/08)

Quest for knowledge: Research from Antarctica to the kitchen cabinests, outer space to the womb” by Colin Nickerson, Beth Daley and Carey Goldberg,  (Boston Globe: 2/18/08)


Posted by Joseph, under AAAS  |  Date: February 17, 2008
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