Monthly Archives: January 2008

I feel a black hole rising

This Vanderbilt Exploration story reveals that hundreds of rogue black holes could be roaming our galactic neighborhood.

From editor and writer David Salisbury’s story:

In the past two years, scientists have succeeded in numerically simulating black hole mergers that incorporate Einstein’s theory of relativity. One of the big surprises to come from this effort is the prediction that when two black holes that are rotating at different speeds or are different sizes combine, the newly merged black hole receives a big kick due to conservation of momentum, pushing it away in an arbitrary direction at velocities as high as 4,000 kilometers per second.

If [the modeling is correct], and 200 globular clusters in the Milky Way have indeed spawned intermediate-sized black holes, this means that hundreds of them are probably wandering invisibly around the Milky Way, waiting to engulf the nebulae, stars and planets that are unfortunate enough to cross their paths.

Fortunately, the existence of a few rogue black holes in the neighborhood does not present a major danger. “These rogue black holes are extremely unlikely to do any damage to us in the lifetime of the universe,” says Vanderbilt astronomer Kelly Holley-Bockelmann. “Their danger zone, the Schwarzschild radius, is really tiny, only a few hundred kilometers. There are far more dangerous things in our neighborhood!”


Seeing green

What’s foul and gross and green all over? China’s Taihu Lake during a massive cyanobacteria bloom. Hans Paerl, seen here scooping up some of the algae, is consulting with the Chinese to control the blooms.

Developing countries aren’t the only places vulnerable; these blooms have killed livestock who sought to slake their thirst from U.S. lakes, Paerl says. Global warming will make the problem worse because the blue-green organisms thrive during droughts and in extreme conditions.

In the end (of the world), Paerl says, there will be cockroaches and blue green algae. And in the very end, there will be the algae. Read the Aug. 31, 07 issue of Science or go to the Paerl Lab.

Not nerdy? Where’s the fun in that?

The University of Maine has started a program just for middle-school girls to prove to them that “science and engineering aren’t nerdy.”

“Math, science and engineering [are] relevant,” Vetelino says, “and not such a nerdy field.”

John Vetelino is a computer science prof who started a very novel program to teach Maine’s high school teachers about sensor technology in a summer school program. He’s getting great NSF grants for these programs. Takin it to the streets!

ALSO from UMaine, a story about raising halibut on the farm. Indoors. Thanks largely to a fish called Wanda.
UMaine and a couple of entrepreneurs have raised the first generation of halibut on land, and now the university’s aquaculture incubator is growing the progeny.  Wanda’s an especially lovable and productive female.

Halibut look really weird, especially when they’re in giant tanks and swim up to the surface to spy you with their eyes.  But they sure do taste good. A little lemon, a little butter.

UMaine has video to go with the story. Good stuff.


The 2nd Annual Science Blogging Conference started today, Jan. 18, 2008, with the main sessions taking place tomorrow at the Sigma Xi headquarters in Research Triangle Park.

Anton Zuiker and Bora Zivkovic, radical and revolutionary science communicators, have again pulled together an interesting group of scientists and other bloggers to keep the revolution alive.

If you’ve missed it, check back on the blogging conference site for wrap-up information, and plan to get your butt down here next year.

Update: There was talk of holding the conference elsewhere next year, maybe even Europe! I vote for Amsterdam!

Rivers and climate change on the East Coast

This week’s issue of Science has a good research study on rivers in the mid-Atlantic states. It’s the geomorphic equivalent of hormone replacement therapy studies that showed HRT was bad for most women: everything you thought is wrong.

The Science study shows that the meandering twists and turns that characterize eastern rivers and streams result from man’s influence.

The news would make a good lead-in for a feature on climate change and rivers. Rivers are important economically (commerce, fishing, tourism) and socially (imagine a river abandoning a town) for the eastern states: how will climate change affect yours?

Typically, scientists who study the Earth look at what happened in the past to predict the future. But the nature of rivers has changed so much, it will take a new paradigm to figure out what the future holds for coastal and river communities.

Brent McKee, chair of UNC’s marine sciences department, studies how rivers respond to rising sea level (one of his sites is the Roanoke River). The huge influence of human activity on rivers makes it hard for McKee to judge whether the Roanoke and other rivers will lose their deltas, flood the coast, jump and take over other, smaller streams, etc., as sea level rises. To answer these questions, McKee and others are using field work, satellite imagery and other techniques like mapping the surface with airborne lasers.

Dam nation

The US is pock-marked with dams that no longer generate power, bridges that can’t hold up a Tata and roads that go nowhere.
They’re not doing nothing, of course. They’re continuing to affect the environment and the immediately surrounding ecology.
So what are we supposed to do with them?

Use them to the environment’s advantage, Martin Doyle says in a Science policy paper about infrastructure decay and ecology restoration.

When dams are removed, like in this photo, it’s been shown that the ecology makes a quick comeback. That’s what happened to the endangerd North Carolina shiner, a cute little minnow, when a dam was peeled off the river near Carbonton, N.C., as seen in the photo.

To drink or not to drink

This nifty study in the Dec. 26, 2007 issue of Journal of Neurosci shows biological and genetic links clinks to addictive behavior, namely alcoholism.

Instead of bating subjects with booze, the researcher tested how well they make complex decisions. Novel. She showed that it’s more difficult for people with alcohol addiction to think through … to come to a … to decide … that their working memory doesn’t work as well and they … like when you’re doing long division in your head and you can’t remember what number you carried and then when you do you can’t remember what you were supposed to add it to, so you just blurt out a number. It’s because their frontal cortex is a little different.

Temple Grandin also talks about frontal cortex and poor working memory in her book, “Animals in Translation,” when discussing autism. Just so you know.

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