Archive for the ‘history’ Category

The Ivory Trade Lives On


John Frederick Walker's new book discusses the ivory trade.Long before gold and gemstones, humans were drawn to ivory. Europeans and Americans were especially found of the material, considered the plastic of its age. It was used to make everyday objects from combs to piano keys. By the 1980s, elephant poaching reached record levels in East Africa, provoking a worldwide outcry that led to an ivory trade ban still in effect.

But that’s not the end of the story. The ivory trade still resonates today. Journalist and conservationist John Frederick Walker discusses the past and future of the ivory trade in his new book, “Ivory Ghosts: The White Gold of History and the Fate of Elephants.” He will be speaking at the Harvard Museum of Natural History this Saturday, January 17, 2009 at 2:00 pm.

What kinds of issues does the ivory trade continue to raise? Science Metropolis editor Joseph Caputo asked Walker about his research.

Q: Why are elephants still being killed for their tusks? Who’s buying it?

The ivory ban only governs international trade in ivory. It doesn’t have anything to do with the internal buying, selling, possessing, collecting of ivory within each country. In North America and Europe, there are vast amounts of worked ivory, that is ivory that’s been carved into something. The issue that is disturbing is that some of it might be masquerading as ivory that is pre-ban when actually it’s poached ivory being snuck into the country.

Q: What role does the online auction-site eBay play in the modern ivory story?

EBay, under pressure from animal advocacy groups, decided that the possibility that there might be some objects being sold on eBay coming from poached ivory was enough to convince them to shut down all ivory sales. I’m not so sure that’s going to help reduce poaching or the flow of illegal ivory. It  was a very well organized and central site and that it probably could have been monitored for that kind of illegal activity.

Q: Why would officials at Kruger National Park in South Africa need to thin their elephant herds?

That disturbs a lot of people but they’re so used to thinking of elephants being persecuted in most parts of Africa. They don’t understand that in the southern tier of Africa, those countries have been very successful with their elephant conservation. They’ve had such success that they have too many elephants for the habitat that’s available.

In Kruger National Park, which is the size of New Jersey, has a population of over 12,000 elephants. The habitat there can only support about 8,000 unless you’re willing to let the park’s biodiversity deteriorate. Elephants can literally transform their landscape into a desert. They are slowly eating up the park and having a huge impact on the vegetation.

After much outcry and discussion, park officials have decided they cannot take culling off the list of possible management techniques. They will use it as a last resort if there’s no other way to bring their numbers under control. But, it’s almost certain that they’re going to have to do that.

Q. Is there a possible end for the ivory trade?

I do not believe the ivory trade will ever end because as long as there are elephants there’s going to be ivory. You don’t have to kill elephants to get their ivory, you just have to wait for them to die. Their tusks are routinely stockpiled in the warehouses of African parks and reserves. Given its status as a desirable material in human history, many people around the world can’t understand why there’s anything wrong with the ivory that comes from elephants that die of natural causes.

For more talks covering history, culture and science, visit the Harvard Museum of Natural History Website.

Posted by Joseph, under history  |  Date: January 15, 2009

MIT Professor and Father of Chaos Theory Dies


Sad news from MIT. Edward Norton Lorenz, an MIT professor and meteorologist best known for developing what became known as the butterfly effect, died last Wednesday of cancer in his home in Cambridge. He was 90.

With every loss of a prominent scientist or doctor, the obituaries that follow are often exquisite examples of science writing. In the case of Lorenz, The Boston Globe delivers with a clear explanation of the effect chaos theory had on predictability and pop culture.

Ironically, Lorenz happened upon his observation of the butterfly effect by accident. (The term grew out of an academic paper he presented to the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1972. After consulting a friend, he entitled the talk: “Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?“)

According to the Globe obituary, the butterfly effect refers to tiny changes that could have catastrophic, and often unpredictable consequences. “Exact measurement of all the conditions could be upset by one small event, such as the flap of a gossamer wing.”

Losing a member of the Boston science community not only gives us a moment to reflect on the scientist, but also on how their science affected us. Lorenz’s existence is indirectly responsible for television episodes, (e.g. The Simpsons, Family Guy, Scrubs) and movies, (e.g. The Butterfly Effect, Back to the Future, Run Lola Run ) that use time travel to explore how a small change in the past could affect the future.

He is also responsible for inciting quasi-philosophical inquiry. An anonymous writer from the It’s Over Nine Thousand blog, calls Lorenz a hero. The writer became interested in the butterfly effect and chaos theory as a kid, which had some interesting consequences.

“My science projects were all based off of Chaos Theory (resulting in quite a few failing grades I might add), and I remember getting into many arguments about the theory, not only with my science teachers, but my school principle when I was called down asking why I kept failing my assignments.”

One element of chaos theory holds true, while consequences may be random, there is a pattern. In the case of Lorenz, definable clusters of curiosity.

A memorial service for Edward Lorenz will be held today, April 20, 2008 at 3:00 p.m. at Swedenborg Chapel, 50 Quincy St., Cambridge.

Photo of Professor Lorenz provided by MIT.

Posted by Joseph, under history, physics  |  Date: April 20, 2008

This Week in Science: 1998-2008


A special look at science news in the Boston Globe spanning the past 10 years. See where the trends began as well as what scientists got right and wrong.

April 12, 1998 – Alternative Medicine Goes Mainstream
Investors begin to cash in on the alternative medicine industry, at the time worth $20 billion a year. Despite concerns holistic practices like acupuncture and homeopathy were nothing more than quackery, Americans flocked to alternative practitioners, leading business-minded individuals to see profitable opportunities.

April 11, 1999 – Barndoor Skate Threatened With Extinction
Don’t worry, the barndoor skate, a sting-ray like saltwater fish native to the Atlantic Ocean still isn’t extinct, but in 1999, overfishing was ensuring their quick decline. Conservation efforts were quickly enforced and the barndoor skate lives comfortably endangered today.

April 10, 2000 – IBM Develops Copper Superchips
IBM began production of copper-based chips (as opposed to aluminum) in hopes of making computer and mobile circuits faster and smaller. This enhancement was predicted to catch on throughout the chip industry and help pave the way for pocket-sized devices.

April 12, 2001 Hopes For Space Unfulfilled
Journalist David Chandler laments the slowing space race: No man on Mars, no lunar space base and an international space station threatened with cutbacks. As missions became increasingly expensive, NASA learned how to do more with less money. The agency is still pinching pennies, but at least today we have a (Canadian) robot in space.

April 11, 2002 Bush Backs Human Cloning Ban
President Bush gathered antiabortion activists, evangelical Christians, and social conservatives at the White House to endorse their campaign to enact a federal ban on human cloning for both reproduction and medical research. “As we seek what is possible, we must always ask what is right, and we must not forget that even the most noble ends do not justify any means,” Bush said.

April 6, 2003 – SARS Epidemic Taking Emotional Toll
People in Hong Kong and Singapore, the epicenter of the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak, speak about the anxiety and isolation resulting from the disease. In the heat of the epidemic, schools were closed, people stopped taking public transportation, weddings were postponed and concerts canceled.

April 6, 2004 – Drinking Can Be Good For You
Years of epidemiological studies examining tens of thousands of patient records reveal a link between moderate drinking and better health. Despite a gold-standard study – a randomized, double-blind test, giving some people a placebo and others an alcoholic punch – many scientists accept this conclusion.

April 11, 2005 – Imaging Technology Uses Firefly Genes to See Cancer
A $300,000 machine, made by Xenogen Corp., a California company, was part of a new wave of imaging technology that gave researchers a way to see diseases as they unfold in a living animal and determine whether newly discovered drugs would be effective weapons against them.

April 10, 2006Electrically Powered Glasses May Offer Alternative to Bifocals
Researchers developed a pair of electrically powered glasses that can refocus with the push of a switch, negating the need for two different lenses. The researchers said the glasses, which change from one setting to the other in less than a second, would eventually be more comfortable and effective than bifocals.

April 11, 2007 – Bush’s Alternative Fuel Plan
In an effort to reduce the country’s reliance on foreign oil by 20 percent by 2017, the Bush administration unveiled the first-ever national goals for increasing the use of alternative fuels in cars and trucks, but environmental groups said the plan could do more harm than good.

April 8, 2008 – ‘Blank’ Stem Cells
“Reprogrammed” stem cells were demonstrated to dramatically improve neurodegenerative disease in rats, giving those who oppose stem cell research reason to celebrate. However, there are concerns that “reprogrammed” cells, which can be taken from adults, might increase the risk of cancer for potential donors, an argument to continue research on alternative methods.

Posted by Joseph, under history  |  Date: April 6, 2008
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St. Patrick’s Day Special: Irish Scientists


Circa 1660, Irish physicist and chemist The Hon Robert Boyle (1627 - 1691), seventh son of Richard Boyle, 1st Earl of Cork. Original Artwork: Engraving by W Holl. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images) Robert Boyle.

In the spirit of St. Patrick’s Day, and the fact that over 24% of Massachusetts residents are of Irish ancestry, (compared to 12% of the nation as a whole), this Science Metropolis post is dedicated to the great men and women of Irish descent who’ve contributed to science and medicine over the centuries.

#1) Robert Boyle (1627-1691) – a.k.a. The Father of Chemistry. Changed the field by dismissing alchemy as pseudo-science and developing the concept of an element in his most famous work, The Sceptical Chymist, published in 1661. One year later, he determined that the pressure and volume of a gas are inversely related at constant temperature, which is known today as Boyle’s Law.

#2) Francis Rynd (1801-1861) – Invented the hypodermic needle and syringe in 1844 as a doctor at Dublin’s Meath Hospital. He used them to make subcutaneous injections on his neuralgia patients. Up to that point, drugs had only been taken orally.

#3) George Johnstone Stoney (1826-1911) – Coined the term “electron” after calculating the negative elementary particle’s magnitude. Author of of over 75 scientific papers, many on the study of spectra and the kinetic theory of gases.

#4) Ernest T.S. Walton (1903-1995) – The only Irish-born scientist to receive a scientific Nobel Prize. In 1951, Walton, along with colleague John Cockcroft, were awarded the honor in physics for building the first linear accelerator. They used it to smash protons into an atom of lithium to produce helium nuclei, thus artificially converting one element into another.

#5) Jocelyn Bell Burnell (1943- ) – Discovered the first four pulsars – rapidly rotating neutron stars – as a postgraduate at Cambridge im 1967. She is currently Visiting Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Mansfield College

#6) Thomas Gernon (1983- ) – Won the Millennium Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition (Ireland) for his project “The Geography and Mathematics of Europe’s Urban Centres.” Currently mapping the underground architecture and structure of a kimberlite dyke system for his postdoc work.

Photo of Robert Boyle from iStockPhoto.

Posted by Joseph, under history, specials  |  Date: March 17, 2008