Friday, July 31, 2009

The view from East Congo

A local elected leader of displaced Congolese. Photo by Bruce Knauft.

Anthropologist Bruce Knauft, director of the States at Regional Risk Project, writes in Emory Report:

This spring, I had the privilege to visit once again the eastern Congo, a region that has suffered the greatest loss of life in the world from human-caused disaster — about 5.5 million persons — since World War II.

In the wake of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, large-scale loss of life in the Great Lakes region has now become concentrated primarily in one country — the eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But the conflict that informs this catastrophe is regional and even global. It has even been described as “the first African world war,” as so many countries have been involved.

An important and troubling aspect of this conflict is not only that it has dragged on for years but that it combines dramatic, violent atrocities with a numbing drumbeat of lives lost due to famine, destruction of crops, livestock, homes, and lack of health and humanitarian services. Armed groups and militias render populous parts of rural East Congo insecure and effectively unreachable for services or aid by humanitarian organizations and the United Nations, much less the Congolese government.

Read more.

Related stories:
Averting the next food crisis
Get a masters in sustainable development

Monday, July 27, 2009

Learning morality from monkeys

"I'm very interested in the origin of morality," says psychologist Frans de Waal, director of the Yerkes Living Links Center, who studies primates for clues to human evolution. De Waal advocates the theory of Scottish philosopher David Hume, that human morality grew out of moral sentiments, instead of a rational process.

"I believe very strongly that actually (our morality) came out of our psychology, and our psychology is a primate psychology," de Waal says. "In primates you can see many of these same tendencies, you see empathy and sympathy. You see reciprocity and retribution. You see rules that are reinforced, and they beat up someone who doesn't follow the rules."

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Movies go under the microscope

What do Dustin Hoffman, Secretary of Energy Steve Chu and physicist Sidney Perkowitz have in common?

They are all on the advisory board of the Science and Entertainment Exchange, a new National Academy of Sciences program that aims to make mass entertainment more scientifically accurate.

"Scientists have strong feelings about how their profession is portrayed, and they should. The way science is handled in movies can have a major impact," says Perkowitz, Candler Professor of Physics and author of "Hollywood Science: Movies, Science and the End of the World."

Read more about the exchange in the San Diego Union article: "Scientific accuracy in movies? It's neither universal nor paramount."

What's your favorite science-fiction flick? Is it realistic?

'Avatar' theme can make you blue

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

A biochemical path to solar energy

Can microbes that live in swamp mud help us produce green energy?

Chemistry Professor Brian Dyer is researching that possibility, through his work at the intersection of chemistry, physics and biology. Early in his career, he began working with proteins that can do photochemistry, drawing his inspiration from natural photosynthesis.

“Ultimately, plants are taking light and storing it as chemical energy,” Dyer explains. “The elegance of some of these reactions is astounding. It’s an incredibly complex process, done with a series of proteins that are highly optimized for a specific function, such as light harvesting and water oxidation. The proteins are like tiny machines. A good analogy is an internal combustion engine, where you actually have integrated, working parts.”

He wants to covert solar energy to fuel, using a particular protein to develop a photocatalyst for solar hydrogen production — which brings up the swamp bugs.

Read more.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

TV got this physicist into films

Many great scientists will tell you that a favorite teacher first influenced their career path. But for Connie Roth, it was the television show "MacGyver." The title character was a secret agent who carried a Swiss Army knife instead of a gun and relied on ingenuity to escape predicaments.

"It was an appealing premise to a teenager, that if you understand enough about how things work, you can put things together to solve problems. That's kind of what a scientist does," says Roth, assistant professor of physics.

Her lab uses both physics and chemistry to explore the dynamics of polymer molecules, including within thin films. Polymer films have a range of industrial uses, such as anti-reflective coatings for eyeglasses, membranes for gas separation processes and electrolyte layers for lithium batteries.

Read Roth's profile in Emory Report.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Dinosaur Burrows Yield Clues to Climate Change

On the heels of his discovery in Montana of the first trace fossil of a dinosaur burrow, Emory University paleontologist Anthony Martin has found evidence of more dinosaur burrows – this time on the other side of the world, in Victoria, Australia. The find, to be published this month in Cretaceous Research, suggests that burrowing behaviors were shared by dinosaurs of different species, in different hemispheres, and spanned millions of years during the Cretaceous Period, when some dinosaurs lived in polar environments.

"This research helps us to better understand long-term geologic change, and how organisms may have adapted as the Earth has undergone periods of global cooling and warming," says Martin.

Drawing by James Hays, Fernbank Museum

A year after the Montana find, Martin traveled to the Victoria coast, which marks the seam where Australia once snuggled against Antarctica. Lower Cretaceous strata of Victoria have yielded the best-documented assemblage of polar dinosaur bones in the world.

During a hike to a remote site known as Knowledge Creek, west of Melbourne, Martin rounded the corner of an outcropping and was astounded to see, right at eye level, the trace fossil of what appeared to be a burrow almost identical to the one he had identified in Montana. "I stared at it for a long time," recalls Martin. "In paleontology, the saying, 'where luck meets preparation' really holds true."

Read reports on Martin's find from the BBC and National Geographic.

Related stories:
Digging dinosaur discovered in fossil den
Crayfish fossils provide missing evolutionary link
Paleontologist tracks clues to ancient life

Monday, July 6, 2009

A creek runs through this teacher workshop

Each summer, Oxford College biology faculty help teachers from K–12 schools across Georgia and north Florida get their feet wet in field ecology. Now in its 18th year, the workshop has given more than 300 science educators training in how to develop their schoolyards for environmental education. “Many participants have told us this has changed the way they teach,” says Oxford Biology Professor Eloise Carter.

Watch an Emory Report slideshow to see what critters the teachers found in Bear Creek this summer.

Get a masters in sustainable development

New degree program puts Emory at forefront of transforming global development practice.

The graduate school will launch a master’s degree program in development practice in the fall of 2010, funded by a $900,000 MacArthur Foundation grant. The grant is part of a significant, worldwide effort by the MacArthur Foundation to promote more effective, sustainable development for the poorest of the poor. Only 10 institutions were awarded the grants, including three universities in the United States, with the rest spread across the globe.

“Emory will be helping to shape and define the future of sustainable development practices, while also training the next generation of innovative practitioners,” says David Nugent, professor of anthropology and director of the new program.

Related stories:
The view from East Congo
Averting the next food crisis

Thursday, July 2, 2009

August rumor swirls around Mars

"Every year about this time, people say to me, 'Gee, I hear Mars is going to get really close to the Earth in August, and it will look as big as the moon,'" says Emory astronomer Horace Dale. "I wish there was something we could do to stamp out this rumor."

The annual Mars hoax began in 2003. In August of that year, the Red Planet came within 34 million miles of the Earth, which is pretty close, in astronomical terms -- and the closest it had been in more than 59,000 years. But even then, it only looked like a large, bright star to the naked eye.

"If you ever look up in the sky and Mars is the size of the moon, then something has seriously gone wrong with the laws of physics," Dale says.

Dale created a Mars Geocentric Distance Calculator, and he now refers people to it when they ask him about the Mars myth. Every 780 days, Mars reaches its synodic period – when it is the closest to Earth during its orbit. Dale's calculator lets you keep track of when the Red Planet is getting closer to Earth, and when it is moving away.

"For all of you that are die-hard Mars fans," Dale says, "first let me say that there is nothing wrong with Mars’ orbit, everything is normal. Even though Mars will not be making a close approach this year, you can see it now early in the morning just above and slightly toward the
south of Venus. Mars will remain predominantly a morning object through October, rising slightly earlier each night. Then by mid-November it will be rising around 11:00pm and getting brighter as it prepares to make its close approach on January 27th, 2010 at a distance of about 67 million miles. While this approach will not be as spectacular as it was in 2003, it is still
worth a look."

(Photo by Horace Dale)

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Where science meets spirituality

Biologist Arri Eisen writes in Religion Dispatches:

"Do bacteria require light?" Tashi, one of my best students, wants to know. He sits there in Dharamsala, India, like his Buddhist monk colleagues, cross-legged on the floor in maroon robes, six hours a day learning science from a tall white Jewish guy from North Carolina.

Beyond the coolness factor, what in the world is the point of teaching science to a bunch of monks halfway around the world?”

Can you say ‘globalization,’ ‘religion,’ ‘science and technology’?

Read more.

(Photo by Ajay Pillarisetti)