Monthly Archives: September 2011

Swedish newspaper reported IR research with pupils

Swedish newspaper Norrköpings Tidningar reported today our international collaboration with Konrad Schönborn and Jesper Haglund at Linköping University on educational research that is aimed at uncovering the cognitive power of IR imaging for science education. If you don't understand Swedish, the title translates into “The heat camera can become important in school physics.” Jenny Sajjadi, a teacher in math and physics, was quoted as saying: “Physics is seen as an ‘old’ subject and this is a bit of new thinking that can increase the students’ interest. For me as a teacher, it is an entrance to deeper teaching.”

Modern handheld IR cameras deliver tremendous power equivalent to thousands of temperature sensors. This kind of Very Large Scale Integrated Sensing System (VLSISS, my coinage in parallel to VLSI circuits that have revolutionized computing) is about to change the landscape of scientific inquiry in the classroom. It opens up learning opportunities that have never been seen before. This US-Sweden collaboration will advance this agenda. As the first step, the collaborative project will provide some pivotal data for how augmented visualization (to the sense of touch) could be a good intervention to notoriously hardy misconceptions related to heat and temperature. See my earlier blog post about this.

An online gas lab simulation

Go to simulation.
You probably know the Ideal Gas Law well. An ideal gas is a hypothetical gas made of randomly moving particles that do not have a volume and do not interact with one another. Have your students ever asked questions such as "What about non-ideal gases? How good is the Ideal Gas Law for real gases?" I don't know about other people's experience, but I myself was intrigued by those questions when I learned the gas laws. Unfortunately, I couldn't go too deeply in trying to answer them because just thinking about the complexity of the motion and interaction quickly intimidated me.

Before computer simulation was widely accessible, you probably would have to pull out the Van der Waals Equation and pray that doing the math would do the trick.

Now, there is a good way to teach this. Using an online molecular dynamics simulation--made using the Molecular Workbench software, investigating non-ideal gases is a piece of cake. This simulation uses a pair of gas containers side by side and allows the user to explore how six variables affect the volume of  a gas: temperature, pressure, number of particles, particle mass, particle size, and particle attraction. It basically covers all the variables in the Van der Waals equation--without saying them explicitly. And there is a variable that is not included in the Van der Waals equation. The simulation reveals exactly why it is not there.

Pumice: Islands of Life?

Pumice, a type of volcanic rock, is so porous that it floats on water, as shown in the picture below.

Now researchers from Oxford University and the University of Western Australia are suggesting that life on Earth could have formed on floating rafts of pumice.

The researchers argue that pumice has a unique set of properties which would have made it an ideal habitat for the earliest organisms that emerged on Earth over 3.5 billion years ago.

‘Not only does pumice float as rafts but it has the highest surface-area-to-volume ratio of any type of rock, is exposed to a variety of conditions, and has the remarkable ability to adsorb metals, organics and phosphates as well as hosting organic catalysts, such as zeolites,’ said Professor Martin Brasier of Oxford University’s Department of Earth Sciences who led the work with David Wacey of the University of Western Australia. ‘Taken together these properties suggest that it could have made an ideal ‘floating laboratory’ for the development of the earliest micro-organisms.’

Floating pumice could have been exposed to lightning, oily residue and metals from hydrothermal vents, and ultraviolet light.  All of these conditions have the potential to generate the kinds of chemical reactions that scientists hypothesize created the first living cells.

The scientists plan to test their hypothesis by subjecting pumice rocks with cycles of heat and radiation to see if the process creates molecules associated with life.  They also plan to examine the early fossil record for evidence of fossils in pumice.

If scientists can determine how life on Earth began, they’ll be better prepared to search for evidence of life on other planets.

Learn about the search for extraterrestrial life in the High-Adventure Science space investigation.

Irrigation and Climate Change

What does irrigation have to do with climate change?  Possibly a lot.

According to a new study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, irrigation has increased agricultural productivity by an amount roughly equivalent to the entire agricultural output of the United States.  That’s a lot of increased productivity!

All of those growing plants take up more carbon dioxide, which could lead to slowing global warming.  But without the extra water required for irrigation, not as much carbon dioxide would be taken up by plants–and that could lead to more warming.

The study also shows quantitatively that irrigation increases productivity in a nonlinear fashion — in other words, adding even a small amount of water to a dry area can have a bigger impact than a larger amount of water in a wetter region. “More irrigation doesn’t necessarily mean more productivity,” Ozdogan says. “There are diminishing returns.”

This was already known on the field scale, he says, but is true globally as well. Interestingly, he found that, on average, worldwide irrigation is currently conducted close to the optimal level that maximizes gains. While this may be good news for current farmers, it implies limited potential for irrigation to boost future productivity even as food demands increase.

So what does this mean for us?

Be mindful of the amount of water that we use so that we can continue to irrigate fields, grow food to feed ourselves, and, along the way, reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Learn about fresh water availability and climate change in our High-Adventure Science investigations.

Good Science/Bad Science

How can you tell when a scientific claim is bad?

Look at the results.  Compare the results from the models with what happened in real life.

An August 2010 study published in Science claimed that drought induced a decline in global plant productivity during the past decade, posing a threat to global food security.  Zhao and Running, the authors of that study, set up their model based on their expectations that global plant productivity would continue to increase, as it had in the 1980s and 1990s.

A new study has found that Zhao and Running’s 2010 model was flawed.

… According to the new study, their model failed miserably when tested against comparable ground measurements collected in these forests. “The large (28%) disagreement between the model’s predictions and ground truth imbues very little confidence in Zhao and Running’s results,” said Marcos Costa, coauthor, Professor of Agricultural Engineering at the Federal University of Viçosa and Coordinator of Global Change Research at the Ministry of Science and Technology, Brazil.

What went wrong?

The authors of the original study included poor quality data and did not test trends for statistical significance.  They also didn’t test their assumptions against real-life.  There was a 28% disagreement between the model’s results and real-life results–far too much to make for a useful model!

So what’s the lesson from all this?  Don’t trust scientists?  Don’t trust models?

No.  The lesson is that scientific progress is made when scientists question their own and each others’ assumptions about what they think should happen.

Could all of this have been avoided?  Yes, if Zhao and Running had better tested their model against real-life to remove, as much as possible, their biases from their work.

Scientists, like all other humans, make errors.  Question the basic assumptions of each claim, and see how the models hold up to a real-life test.  That’s how you’ll know when you’re dealing with good science.

Learn some good science in the High-Adventure Science investigations on climate, water, and space.

Harvesting Planets

On September 12, 2011, a team of scientists announced that the HARPS telescope has identified more than 50 new planets; this is the largest number of planets ever announced at once.

The HARPS telescope works by detecting the movement of stars.  A star with an orbiting planet will be pulled towards the planet as it orbits.  If the star moves toward and away from Earth, this movement can be detected and planets can be discovered.

Astronomers have pointed HARPS at 376 Sun-like stars, and over the past eight years, they have discovered more than 150 new planets.  At least one of the newly-discovered planets is potentially habitable; HD85512b is estimated to be only 3.6 times the mass of Earth and it orbits its star within a zone in which liquid water could exist.

The increasing precision of the new HARPS survey now allows the detection of planets under two Earth masses. HARPS is now so sensitive that it can detect radial velocity amplitudes of significantly less than 4 km/hour– less than walking speed.

“The detection of HD 85512 b is far from the limit of HARPS and demonstrates the possibility of discovering other super-Earths in the habitable zones around stars similar to the Sun,” adds Michel Mayor, of the University of Geneva, Switzerland.

This is just the beginning for finding Earth-like planets around other stars!

Learn more about planet hunting in the High-Adventure Science space investigation.

Digging into Permafrost

Permafrost, the thick layer of soil that remains frozen throughout the year, currently holds a large amount of carbon.  If the permafrost thaws, it will release the stored carbon, which could contribute to further warming.  This is not new news.

What is new is the idea that high latitude areas will become a carbon source rather than a carbon sink.  The 2007 assessment report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggested that the thawed permafrost would allow for greater vegetation in polar regions, leading to carbon uptake.  But a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences contradicts that assertion.

The authors of that study–Charles Koven, of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and a team of scientists from France, Canada, and the United Kingdom–used a model that took into account how carbon behaves in different layers of the ground.

But unlike earlier models, the new model includes detailed processes of how carbon accumulates in high-latitude soil over millennia, and how it’s released as permafrost thaws. Because it includes these processes, the model begins with much more carbon in the soil than previous models. It also better represents the carbon’s vulnerability to decomposition as the soil warms.

New models lead to updated forecasts on what is likely to happen to Earth’s climate.  But this isn’t the final word.  Even the latest and greatest models can be refined to make ever-better forecasts of the future.

Koven adds that there are large uncertainties in the model that need to be addressed, such as the role of nitrogen feedbacks, which affect plant growth. And he says that more research is needed to better understand the processes that cause carbon to be released in permanently frozen, seasonally frozen, and thawed soil layers.

The quest to forecast the future continues.

To learn about how carbon dioxide affects Earth’s climate, try out the High-Adventure Science climate investigation.

Designing solar hot air collectors

Engineering design is a lot of fun. The variety of engineering systems students can realistically design and build in classrooms is, however, limited by the constraints of time, resources, and student preparedness.

Currently, construction toys and computer programming are perhaps the most frequently adopted student projects for learning engineering design. These applications cover a number of domains such as robotics and software engineering. 

In our Engineering Energy Efficiency project, we have been working on adding a new option of engineering project that students and teachers can choose to learn and teach engineering.

This Green Building Kit we are developing needs only paper, cardstock, foam board, among other typical office supplies and widely available sensors. Yet, it will allow students to design, build, and test energy-efficient model houses with considerable green features.

An example I am working on is a hot air collector (HAC, also known as the Trombe wall). This is actually very easy to construct (hence a popular DIY project for those who are "green"-minded and handy). It is not difficult for students to add an HAC unit to the sun-facing wall of a model house.

In order for students to have fun with this design challenge, we need to show them that there are a variety of things that they can learn, emulate, test, and invent.

HAC units are usually installed to the part of the sun-facing wall that is not occupied by windows. Windows are necessary to a house because they let light in, but they generally lose more heat than an insulated wall. An insulated wall keeps the heat inside the house, but it does not do anything to collect the heat from the sun and give it to the house. The idea of hot air collector is to use the surface area of the wall that is exposed to the sun to collect some solar energy for warming up the house.

If you think about this engineering design task, it is really a problem about the optimal use of the sun-facing wall surface. So where should we put windows and HAC units and what is the best way of using them? The above images show a variety of designs. Click each image to enlarge it and see the details of each design.

The fourth design combines the benefits of windows and HAC units. It is basically a large HAC unit with the middle part replaced by a window. On the one hand, sunlight still can shine into the house through the two layers of glazing (we automatically have a double-pane window). On the other hand, as the HAC unit is tall, the convective heat exchange between the HAC unit and the room will be more significant. I haven't seen an HAC design like this, so this is my little "invention." Well, I am pretty sure some guy has thought of this before and there is probably a pending patent for this, but never mind about this, I am just demonstrating how an engineering design process in the classroom could be made more inventive.

Our next step is to make it possible for students to add these green architectural elements (HAC is just one of them) in one of our flagship products: Energy3D. Energy3D already has a powerful heliodon for solar design.