Taxonomy term

september 2008

It's a Dirty Job, But Someone's Gotta Do It

Fossilized feces reveal significant details about ancient life

How often do you laugh when you talk to a scientist? Over the years, I have interviewed and talked with dozens of geologists, biologists and archaeologists. I often come away feeling the researcher’s passion and excitement about his or her subject, but rarely do I come away with a sense of mirth, until I started to talk to people who work with coprolites. I don’t mean to imply that the researchers aren’t serious about their work — they are. But they also exude a healthy sense of humor.

28 Aug 2008

Swapping one greenhouse gas for another

There are no miracle cures, it would seem. Nitrogen trifluoride is a colorless, nontoxic gas that has helped make the semiconductor industry greener by replacing a well-known greenhouse gas threat. But nitrogen trifluoride is a powerful greenhouse gas in its own right, with a potential impact on climate 17,000 times greater than carbon dioxide — and it is currently unregulated.

28 Aug 2008

New York's Dirty Secret: The effort to clean up America's largest oil spill

Wedged between the hard-bitten boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens, N.Y., lies a six-kilometer-long slip of sickly green water called Newtown Creek. Dubbed the most polluted waterway in America, this tidal tributary of the East River has no natural headwater: The water that feeds the mostly stagnant creek is a combination of industrial wastewater, stormwater runoff and, after a hard rain, raw sewage.

28 Aug 2008

The quicker oil picker upper

After the Cosco Busan container ship crashed into the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge last November and leaked more than 58,000 gallons of fuel into the bay, the U.S. Coast Guard deployed floating containment booms and absorbent pads to mop up the mess. Such technologies have been used to clean up oil spills for two decades. Soon, however, oil spill cleanup crews may have a more high-tech tool: Researchers have developed reusable sheets of nanowire “paper” that absorb oil without soaking up any water.

28 Aug 2008

Of molten iron and magnetism

Since 1999, the German satellite CHAMP (CHAllenging Mini-satellite Payload) has swirled around Earth, keeping watch as the planet’s magnetic field waxes and wanes over time. CHAMP’s continuous measurements of Earth’s field have created a finely detailed picture of how the field changes both in space and in time — and by extension, how the movement of the molten iron in Earth’s outer core ebbs and flows. And thanks to these data, researchers report, they can now track even small-scale, rapid fluctuations in the field’s strength around the planet.

28 Aug 2008

Spot-free sun: Is that normal?

For the past few years, astronomers and scientists have been looking up at a sun that is, more often than not, rather blank. Almost too blank. That is, the sun has been relatively free of the dark patches, called “sunspots,” that appear within 30 degrees of the sun’s equator and travel across the surface. Although low sunspot counts are normal in a typical sunspot cycle, this period has gone on longer than usual, scientists noted at an international solar conference on “Solar Variability, Earth’s Climate and the Space Environment” held in early June at Montana State University in Bozeman.

28 Aug 2008

Glacier moves in fits and starts

The Whillans Ice Stream — an Antarctic glacier that covers an area slightly smaller than the state of New Jersey — flows from the interior of the continent to the ocean at a rate of about one meter per day. That’s not unusual for a large glacier, but how it covers that distance is surprising. Instead of inching along at a steady pace as most glaciers do, the Whillans Ice Stream jerks forward just twice a day, each time sending out seismic waves equivalent to a major earthquake.

28 Aug 2008

A whale of a wind turbine

According to conventional wisdom, things that need to move efficiently through air or water should be sleek and streamlined. Dolphins, jets and Olympic swimmers stick to this rule, but humpback whales, with their massive knobby-edged flippers, buck the trend.

28 Aug 2008

Beads of water on the moon

During the Apollo missions, NASA astronauts shoveled, bagged and sent back to Earth close to 400 kilograms of lunar rocks and soil. But researchers studying these samples never found water. Now, after decades of coming up dry, scientists have found evidence that the moon’s interior once held — and perhaps still holds — water.

28 Aug 2008

Dye-ing for efficient solar power

Solar energy is an abundant resource, but so far, solar panels have tended to be relatively expensive and less efficient than desired. Now researchers at MIT in Cambridge, Mass., may have solved both those problems by inventing a new inexpensive dye that works as a “solar concentrator” when painted on ordinary window panes. The dye gathers light energy over the entire surface of the window, then transports it out to the edge of the pane to a line of energy-collecting solar cells.

28 Aug 2008