Monday, November 28, 2011

How far is Mars? It depends when you ask

To mark the recent liftoff of the space rover Curiosity, the 39th mission to Mars, Matthew Bell pulled together 39 interesting facts about the Red Planet for “The Independent” newspaper.

Here’s his fact number 13:

“Mars's distance from Earth changes by the second because the two planets are on different elliptical orbits. The distance between them ranges from 36 million miles to more than 250 million miles.”

Which leads to Bell’s fact number 14:

“You can see exactly how far Mars is from Earth in real time thanks to the physics department of Emory University in Atlanta, which has it displayed second-by-second on its website.”

Here’s a link to the Mars real-time distance calculator. It was created by Emory astronomer Horace Dale, to counter the crazy rumors that swirl around about Mars every August. You can read about the Mars rumor here.

The Curiosity is scheduled to land on Mars in August of 2012. The rover contains a seven-foot-long robotic arm, which will allow it to drill into Martian rocks to take samples, and explore the geographic history of Mars. Check out the video (at the top of this post) featuring animations of how the 1-ton rover will touch down when it arrives at Mars, and how the robot will look as it goes about its mission.

The first manned mission to Mars is likely to be a one-way trip. An artist rendition, above, of what the first Martian outpost could look like. (Image by NASA.)

For Bell’s final fact, he notes that the U.S. plans the first manned mission to Mars for 2030: “President Barack Obama gave his support last year, saying he expected to see it happen in his lifetime. But, because of the expense of sending astronauts there and back, it's been proposed that whoever goes to Mars should stay there indefinitely.”

That means that the first people to call the Red Planet home, the first Martians, could be walking the Earth right now.

Scientist tackles ethics of space travel
August rumor swirls around Mars

Friday, November 18, 2011

From Atlanta to Accra: The growing sewage problem

Christine Moe shows the above video, produced by WaterAid, to first-year medical students at Emory. "I want students to think more about sanitation, and to understand why they should care about the enormous problems surrounding it," she says.

By Carol Clark

Christine Moe began researching human waste disposal during the 1980s, as a VISTA volunteer. She was sent to rural West Virginia to assist in coal mining towns that lacked sewage treatment plants.

“The valleys were incredibly steep and narrow, and septic tanks need to have flat land for the drain field,” Moe recalls. “So the septic tank pipes just emptied straight into the creeks. You could see toilet paper in the brush lining the water.”

Moe now works on sanitation projects around the world as a professor at the Rollins School of Public Health and the director of Emory’s Center for Global Safe Water.

November 19 is World Toilet Day, which aims to build awareness that 40 percent of the people on the planet use unsafe toilets or defecate in the open. It’s a fact of growing concern, to both human health and diginity, and to the environment: The developing world is rapidly urbanizing, and raw sewage is building up in high-population centers.

“When I walk through the slums of Accra, Ghana, I get really outraged at the conditions that I see people living in,” Moe says. “That passion motivates me to want to find solutions.”

World Toilet Day may finally gain momentum in the United States, since actor Matt Damon became a celebrity spokesperson for the cause, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation began awarding major grants addressing sanitation.

The Center for Global Safe Water recently received $2.5 million from the Gates Foundation to study ways that people are exposed to human waste in cities of the developing world. The first phase of the research is focusing on Accra, which is typical of many rapidly growing cities in sub-Saharan Africa in its lack of sewage treatment plants. Tanker trucks suck up excreta from latrines and dump it into the coastal ocean.

“You have people literally surrounded by shit,” Moe says.

Public latrines in Accra are squat plates with a trench underneath, shared by hundreds of people. The latrines lack sinks, running water and soap.

People who can’t make it to a latrine may resort to squatting over a plastic bag, then tying up the excreta and tossing it into the household trash, or simply flinging it out a window. This method is known as the “flying toilet.”

Open drains line the unpaved streets where children play. “You’ll see children kicking a ball, and if the ball lands in the drain, one of the kids will climb in, get the ball out and they’ll just keep playing with it,” Moe says, pointing to a photo of a little boy rummaging amid raw sewage in a drain (see above).

Urban agriculture pops up in the slums wherever people can find a spot to grow a few vegetables. For irrigation, they dip containers into the drains and pour the water over the plants.

“There are so many ways that people can be exposed to fecal material, it’s hard to know how to prioritize an intervention,” Moe says. “In our study, we’re trying to get information that will help policy makers develop the most effective solutions.”

The sub-human conditions that Accra slum residents must endure are hard to imagine without seeing them, Moe says. She wants people in Atlanta to not only grasp the terrible toll of poor sanitation in the developing world, but to also understand the growing problem of sewage in the United States.

One-third of the water in a typical U.S. household is used to flush toilets. “We are using drinking water to remove excreta from our homes,” Moe says. “In a city like Atlanta, faced with water shortages every couple of years, I don’t think our system is sustainable.”

The Gates Foundation has launched a campaign called “Reinventing the Toilet.” The idea is to spur innovative toilet designs that do not require massive amounts of water and infrastructure.

China, for instance, is promoting the use of anaerobic digester systems to process waste in rural areas. Household toilets feed into the odorless digesters, which convert the waste into biogas used as an energy source.

“We really need to start getting more creative when it comes to toilets,” Moe says.

Norovirus stays infective for months in water
Sewage raises West Nile virus risk

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Obama urged to act now on environment

A dump truck in the tar sands region of Canada. Credit:

Following is an excerpt from an opinion piece published in the New York Times, written by Emory psychologist Drew Westen, author of "The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation."

For some time the Obama administration had appeared to be signaling its likely approval of a plan to lay a high-pressure oil pipeline from Canadian tar sands right on top of the main water supply to much of the Midwest. Last week, however, after thousands of protesters — ranging from ranchers and farmers to ordinary Americans concerned about the catastrophic harm that could be done if that pipeline were to leak — surrounded the White House, the administration announced that it was delaying a decision until 2013. ...

The decision to put off a political decision has turned out to be a defining characteristic of this administration. Typically the magic number is 2013, although 2014 and 2020 are popular second-choices. Just two months ago, under heavy lobbying from polluters, the president took both supporters and members of his own administration aback with a decision to override a plan produced by his own Environmental Protection Agency to tighten the lax Bush standards on clean air to prevent toxic smog. The president who had campaigned on restoring the role of science in decision-making overrode the judgment of a unanimous panel of scientists, suggesting that he wanted to “study” the issue further — perhaps until 2013.

Read the whole article in the New York Times.

What happened to Obama's passion?
Oil spill may reshape environmental law

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

East meets West, at the cellular level

Prayer flags fly over a field in Dharamsala, India, in the foothills of the Himalayas.

Following is an excerpt from an article written by Emory biologist Arri Eisen, published in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

To teach my biology class today, I took three planes for a total of 9,000 miles nearly halfway around the world. My students have left their sandals at the door. As I walk in, they sit, maroon-robed and expectant, cross-legged on the floor. My body clock registers 11:30 p.m. the day before. I write on the board: "Are bacteria sentient beings?"

This is my fourth year coming to Dharamsala, India, home of the Tibetan government in exile, in the foothills of the Himalayas, as part of an unusual collaboration—the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative—between the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives and Emory University. About seven years ago, the Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of the Tibetans, invited Emory to develop and teach a contemporary science curriculum for the more than 20,000 Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns in exile. …

Over the years, I've come a long way from thinking that teaching science to Tibetan monks and nuns is just a cool thing to do. The monastics, on the whole, are astoundingly open-minded and approach problems with a thoughtful rationality that is, ironically, often missing from my Western colleagues' approach to science and the world. An ancient Zen koan goes something like: If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him. That is, destroy preconceptions, question everything—especially if you think you've figured it all out. Most of the monastics in my classroom embody that attitude.

They are busy integrating East and West at the cellular level, re-examining everything they thought they knew. For them, the question of whether bacteria are sentient has serious karmic implications. If these single-celled organisms are, indeed, sentient beings, then any other sentient being could be reincarnated as a bacterium. They face this question with calm, engaged clarity, ready to rethink and integrate whatever they may discover.

Read the whole article in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Are hugs the new drugs?
Monks + scientists = a new body of thought
Monks study science, and campus life

Friday, November 11, 2011

Add environmental artist to your resume

By Carol Clark

Take an empty plastic bottle out of the trash. Slash the label and the top off with a knife, then use scissors to cut the base into a spiraling ribbon. Now clamp the plastic ribbon down and blast it with 1,000 degrees F. from a heat gun.

Voila! The plastic bottle becomes a long, slender stalk curving into a dainty little cup at one end, like a pitcher plant. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t done it myself.

Environmental artist John Grade glanced at my handiwork and noted that the cup at the end of the stalk is “to hold the mosquito larvae.”

Something unusual is under way on the Emory campus. And I mean unusual even by academia standards.

Grade (pronounced “grotty”) is a visiting artist at Emory, heading up a monumental public art project called “Piedmont Divide.” During the next 10 days, 20,000 plastic water bottles are being transformed into two massive sculptures. One of the sculptures will hang from the trees on the Quadrangle; the other will be suspended over the lake at Lullwater Preserve.

The results are bound to be interesting. Grade is internationally known for his immense installations. His piece “Seeps of Winter” was influenced by his curiosity about the remains of humans found in Irish bogs, and a beached humpback whale he came across one day walking on the Washington coast. His sculpture “The Elephant Bed” centered on Ice Age algae that forms the geographical bedrock of Brighton, England.

John Grade's sketch for "Piedmont Divide" on the campus Quadrangle.

For “Piedmont Divide” Grade is drawing his inspiration from Emory’s work on West Nile virus and global water sustainability.

"Piedmont Divide" needs volunteers daily through Saturday, Nov. 19, to help with the construction. If you love art and/or science, you don’t want to miss this chance to become an environmental sculptor, even if it’s just for a few hours. Click here for volunteer details.

Taking pieces of trash and changing them into pieces for a major artwork can alter your perspective. I will never look at a plastic bottle the same way.

Sewage raises West Nile virus risk
Norovirus stays infective for months in water
A few things you may not know about water

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Scientists weigh in on baby fat

From the Associated Press:

Researchers say there's a new way to tell if infants are likely to become obese later on: Check to see if they've passed two key milestones on doctors' growth charts by age 2.

Babies who grew that quickly face double the risk of being obese at age 5, compared with peers who grew more slowly, a study found. Rapid growers were also more likely to be obese at age 10, and infants whose chart numbers climbed that much during their first 6 months faced the greatest risks.

Contrary to the idea that chubby babies are the picture of health, the study bolsters evidence that "bigger is not better" in infants, said Dr. Elsie Taveras, the study's lead author and an obesity researcher at Harvard Medical School.

But skeptics say not so fast. Babies often grow in spurts and flagging the speediest growers could lead to putting infants on diets -- a bad idea that could backfire in the long run, said Dr. Michelle Lampl, director of Emory University's Center for the Study of Human Health.

"It reads like a very handy rule and sounds like it would be very useful -- and that's my concern," Lampl said. The guide would be easy to use to justify feeding infants less and to unfairly label them as fat. It could also prompt feeding patterns that could lead to obesity later, she said.

Lampl noted that many infants studied crossed at least two key points on growth charts; yet only 12 percent were obese at age 5 and slightly more at age 10. Nationally, about 10 percent of preschool-aged children are obese, versus about 19 percent of those aged 6 to 11.

Lampl and Edward Frongillo, an infant growth specialist at the University of South Carolina, voiced concern in an editorial accompanying the study in the journal Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, released online Monday.

Grandma was right: Babies really do wake up taller
That diaper is loaded with data
How childhood makes us who we are

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Science meets art in the park: Come and play

Soon clouds won’t be the only thing hovering over the lake in Emory’s Lullwater Preserve. Photo by Jon Martinson.

Environmental artist John Grade arrived on the Emory campus this week to begin orchestrating “Piedmont Divide.” A large-scale art installation in two parts, “Piedmont Divide” will reflect the university’s research into West Nile virus and global water sustainability.

“This is a creative project where everyone can play,” said Julia Kjelgaard, chair of the Visual Arts Department, during a welcome reception for Grade, a visiting artist at Emory.

Grade is soliciting volunteers to help in the building of the two large outdoor sculptures: One to be located amid the trees on the campus Quadrangle, and the other above the lake at the Lullwater park. The work will continue through Saturday, November 19. Click here for details of how to join in the effort.

“The plans are more or less free-form, like a jazz performance,” Grade said, adding that everyone who works on the project may influence the end result. “I hope that the work will mature and develop beyond what my vision is.”

A studio at the Emory Visual Arts Gallery is filling up with giant bags of clear plastic water bottles, the raw material for the sculptures. If you have some clear plastic bottles to recycle, drop them off at the gallery, which is still short of the 20,000 needed.

Rather than distinct masses, the two sculptures will be “cloud-like forms,” Grade said. “The clouds will start taking shape from center, where they will be most dense, and then spiral outward. The pieces will expand in an organic way. It’s a bit more risky to work this way, but I’m confident that the results will be interesting.”

The installation on the Quad will be suspended in the tree canopy in a spider-web-like network of lines. A pulley system will allow the sculpture to be lowered and raised.

The Lullwater piece will be suspended over the lake. A scaffold just below the water line will support the structure. Grade envisions dancers performing beneath the sculpture. “They will look like they're walking on water,” he says.

In addition to lending a hand in building the sculptures, the public is invited to a Creativity Conversation with Grade and Kjelgaard, on Wednesday, Nov. 16 at 5 p.m. in the Carlos Museum Reception Hall.

On Thursday, Nov. 17 at 6:30 p.m., Grade will discuss the intersection of art, science and sustainability with Uriel Kitron, chair of environmental studies, and Christine Moe, director of the Center for Safe Water at Emory. Pizza will be served during the free public event, at the Visual Arts Gallery.

A few things you may not know about water

Monday, November 7, 2011

How much time do you have left?

Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried in a race against time.

Imagine your arm is “tattooed” with a watch that shows how much time you have left to live. You can see the seconds ticking down.

That’s the premise of the new science-fiction thriller “In Time,” starring Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried. It’s 2161 and genetic engineering stops people from aging after 25 years. One major downside of eveyone staying in their prime, of course, is over-population. So people die within a year of turning 25 unless they are strong enough to work for more minutes, or wealthy enough to literally buy more time. The poor live in a separate “time zone,” segregated from the zone of the rich, who can exist for millennia if they are sufficiently well off.

Even in the real world of today, statistics favor the wealthy for longevity.

"Here in the U.S., we have large and enduring economic inequalities in health," says Hannah Cooper, assistant professor at the Rollins School of Public Health. “People in the lower socio-economic strata tend to be two to three times more likely to die early than people who are in the highest economic strata."

Some of the factors that may play a role in how much time you have left include: whether you have health insurance, the crime rate and pollution levels near your home, your access to fresh fruits and vegetables, your mental state, and whether you are exposed to toxins or other hazards in your workplace.

Nazi eugenics versus the American Dream
AIDS: From a new disease to a leading killer
The science and ethics of X-men

Friday, November 4, 2011

Where's the beef? Mideast looks to East Africa

A herd of thirsty cattle arrives at a watering trough in Isiolo, Kenya. Much of the livestock from the Horn of Africa is destined for the Middle East. (

By Carol Clark

Muslims are gathering in the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, for hajj, an annual five-day pilgrimage, set to begin on Saturday. The largest pilgrimage in the world, the hajj draws millions of Muslims, and they will be feasting on ritually sacrificed meat.

Much of that livestock, more than two million animals, will come from the Horn of Africa.

“It’s big business, but it’s unclear how much small-scale livestock producers in East Africa really benefit from the growing demand for their products in the Middle East,” says Emory anthropologist Peter Little.

That’s one of the questions Little plans to tackle during the next phase of his research into how East Africa pastoralists make a living amid the vagaries of a harsh environment and climate change.

Little, who has been studying the region’s pastoralists for three decades, recently received an additional $700,000 from the Livestock-Climate Change Collaborative Support Program, to continue working on a joint project in the region. The LCC program, centered at Colorado State University, was established in 2010 through an agreement with the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Emory is partnering with Pwani University College in Kenya and Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia for the current phase of the project. In addition to Little’s deep experience in the region, Emory brings a strong public health component to the research, and the expertise of disease ecologist Uriel Kitron, chair of environmental studies.

“One thing we will be looking at is how the warming of East Africa is creating different kinds of disease vectors, affecting both livestock and humans,” Little says.

The project ultimately aims to increase incomes and food security in the extremely vulnerable Horn of Africa. The region is currently confronting yet another drought disaster, and violent conflict between Kenya and Somalia.

“It’s a challenge working in the Horn of Africa on many levels,” Little says. “But the research questions are exciting, and so is the potential to have an impact. It’s a worthy goal.”

Small-scale livestock keepers have managed climate variability and many other challenges by moving to new sources of water and pastures. Fences and settlements are increasingly restricting their moves, however, while new technologies, such as cell phones and trucking of water and feed, have expanded access to information and resources. Little is known about the current market risks facing mobile pastoralists, although the livestock trade continues to be an integral part of the economies of the region.

Students from Emory and the African universities will also be involved in the project, which includes training local counterparts to continue the work of pastoralist development in the region after the project ends in 2015.

What we can learn from African pastoralists
Famine in Somalia driven by conflict

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Express your love of chemistry

Have you ever dreamed of dancing on the periodic table? Now you have your chance. The Emory chemistry club, ChEmory, is sponsoring "Transform Chemistry into Art," a contest in celebration of the International Year of Chemistry.

Members of the Emory community from across campus are invited to use drawing, photography, sculpture, film, song and dance to express their passion for chemistry. Entries are due by Wednesday, Nov. 16 to or Atwood 308. The works will be on display, and the winners announced, on November 19. Prizes will be awarded.

For inspiration, watch the video below of FoSheng Hsu from Cornell, doing an interpretative dance of the the world of x-ray crystallography and a 3-dimensional protein structure. Hsu won the chemistry division for the 2011 "Dance Your Ph.D" contest, an international event sponsored by the journal Science. A record number of 55 dances were submitted to the contest this year, and you can check them out here.

The Holy Grail to X-ray crystal structure of human protein phosphatase from FoSheng Hsu on Vimeo.

Sparking a love of chemistry in teens
Rappers find their elements