For the first time this year, the Oscars provided a “ticker” that scrolled through all the thank you’s for Oscar winners, allowing them to use their time on stage to discuss something in addition to who they’d like to thank. Lot’s of important, powerful messages were delivered, and here at CauseScience we are very excited that Climate Change happened to be a central theme several times!
And lastly, I just want to say this, making The Revenant was about man’s relationship to the natural world — the world that we collectively felt in 2015 as the hottest year in recorded history. Our production had to move to the southernmost tip of this planet just to be able to find snow. Climate change is real, it is happening right now, it is the most urgent threat facing our entire species, and we need to work collectively together and stop procrastinating.
We need to support leaders around the world who do not speak for the big polluters or the big corporations, but who speak for all of humanity, for the indigenous peoples of the world, for the billions and billions of underprivileged people who will be most affected by this, for our children’s children, and for those people out there whose voices have been drowned out by the politics of greed.
I thank you all for this amazing award tonight. Let us not take this planet for granted; I do not take this night for granted.
In addition to Leo, Mad Max took home about a bazillion Oscars, and several of the Oscar winners also took the time to address climate change in their acceptance speeches. For example, costume designer Jenny Beavan said this in her acceptance speech:
“I just want to say one quite serious thing, I’ve been thinking about this a lot, but actually it could be horribly prophetic, Mad Max, if we’re not kinder to each other, and if we don’t stop polluting our atmosphere, so you know, it could happen,”
Glad to see Oscar winners using their time in the spotlight to highlight the threat of climate change and to urge everyone to do something about it!
In case you didn’t watch the Academy Awards last night – spoiler alert – Leonardo DiCaprio finally won Best Actor for The Revenant! Whether that matters to you or not, Leo continued his vocal stance on climate change and mentioned it in-depth in his acceptance speech!! He also posted about climate change on his Facebook wall, and included MomentForAction.org (below). Check out previous CauseScience posts on Leo killing it in a speech at the UN Climate Summit, and being named UN Messenger of Peace on Climate Change! Leo is definitely the biggest celebrity that continually vocalizes concern for climate change and repeatedly demands action!! Maybe this all started when he realized that Titanic could only happen in a world with icebergs 😉 (FANGIRLING!)
The point is, much is still not known about the possible relationship between the Zika virus and microcephaly. There is evidence that the two conditions are positively correlated within certain areas of Brazil and possibly French Polynesia. While strongly suspected, scientists and health officials have little direct evidence to support a causal link, but that’s due, in part, to the nature of Zika and microcephaly diagnosis. Lastly, Zika does appear to target the brain, but some scientists say much more mechanistic research needs to be done to confirm a causal link between the virus and microcephaly.
In short, much is still unknown about Zika, microcephaly and their possible link. The WHOdeclared the outbreak a public health emergency for precisely this reason — to “coordinate international efforts” to better understand the two conditions’ potential relationship and to control Zika’s spread.
The rumor that GM mosquitoes could be behind the Zika outbreak in Brazil began on Jan. 25 with a Reddit thread titled: “Genetically modified mosquitoes released in Brazil in 2015 linked to the current Zika epidemic?” Some media outlets, including Fox News, The Ecologist and The Daily Mail went on to spread the rumor. Some websites, such as Natural News, cited the involvement of Bill Gates. (The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation provided $19.7 million for a project to develop and test GM mosquitoes, according to Science.)
However, the stability – that is, the ability to remain balanced – of a bicycle with a rider is more difficult to quantify and describe mathematically, especially since rider ability can vary widely. My colleagues and I brought expert and novice riders into the lab to investigate whether they use different balancing techniques.
The physics of staying upright on a bicycle
A big part of balancing a bicycle has to do with controlling the center of mass of the rider-bicycle system. The center of mass is the point at which all the mass (person plus bicycle) can be considered to be concentrated. During straight riding, the rider must always keep that center of mass over the wheels, or what’s called the base of support – an imaginary polygon that connects the two tire contacts with the ground.
Bicycle riders can use two main balancing strategies: steering and body movement relative to the bike. Steering is critical for maintaining balance and allows the bicycle to move to bring the base of support back under the center of mass. Imagine balancing a broomstick on one hand – steering a bicycle is equivalent to the hand motions required to keep the broomstick balanced. Steering input can be provided by the rider directly via handlebars (steering torque) or through the self-stability of the bicycle, which arises because the steer and roll of a bicycle are coupled; a bicycle leaned to its side (roll) will cause a change in its steer angle.
Body movements relative to the bicycle – like leaning left and right – have a smaller effect than steering, but allow a rider to make balance corrections by shifting the center of mass side to side relative to the bicycle and base of support.
Steering is absolutely necessary to balance a bicycle, whereas body movements are not; there is no specific combination of the two to ensure balance. The basic strategy to balance a bicycle, as noted by Karl von Drais (inventor of the Draisine), is to steer into the undesired fall.
Newbies versus pros
While riders have been described using mathematical equations, the equations are not yet useful for understanding the differences between riders of different ability levels or for predicting the stability of a given rider on a given bicycle.
Therefore, the goal of my colleagues’ and my recent work was to explore the types of control used by both novice and expert riders and to identify the differences between the two groups. In our study, expert riders identified themselves as skilled cyclists, went on regular training rides, belonged to a cycling club or team, competed several times per year, and had used rollers for training indoors. Novice riders knew how to ride a bicycle but did so only occasionally for recreation or transportation and did not identify themselves as experts.
We conducted our experiments in a motion capture laboratory, where the riders rode a typical mountain bike on rollers. Rollers constrain the bicycle in the fore-aft direction but allow free lateral (left-right) movement. They require a bicycle rider to maintain balance by pedaling, steering and leaning, as one would outdoors.
We mounted sensors and used a motion capture system to measure the motion of the bicycle (speed, steering angle and rate, roll angle and rate) and the steering torque used by the rider. A force platform underneath the rollers allowed us to calculate the lateral position of the center of mass relative to the base of support; that let us determine how a rider was leaning.
We found that both novice and expert riders exhibit similar balance performance at slow speeds. But at higher speeds, expert riders achieve superior balance performance by employing smaller but more effective body movements and less steering. Regardless of speed, expert riders use smaller and less varying steering inputs and less body movement variation.
We conclude that expert riders are able to use body movements more effectively than novice riders, which results in reducing the demand for both large corrective steering and body movements.
Despite our work and that of others in the field, there is still much to be learned about how humans ride and balance bicycles. Most research, including ours, has been limited to straight line riding, which only makes up a fraction of a typical bicycle ride.
Our work reveals measurable differences between riders of different skill levels. But their meaning is unclear. Are the differences linked to a higher risk of crashing for the novice riders? Or do the differences simply reflect a different style of control that gets fine-tuned through hours and hours of training rides?
Ideally, we would like to identify the measurements that quantify the balance performance, control strategy and fall risk of a rider in the real world.
With such measurements, we could identify riders at high risk of falling, explore the extent to which bicycle design can reduce fall risk and increase balance performance, and develop the mathematical equations that describe riders of different skill levels.
The most exciting areas of science often can’t be seen with the naked eye because the phenomena are too big or too small, too slow or too fast. That’s why we believe it’s worth honoring those who use novel techniques — or create exceptional examples of traditional ones — to present scientific ideas visually. So, for the second year, Popular Science has teamed up with the National Science Foundation to bring you exemplars of information made beautiful. Congratulations to the winners!
Walking in color Credit: Daniel M. Harris and John W.M. BushQuantum physics measures movements of the tiniest particles in the universe, which not only happen incredibly quickly and on very small scales, but also defy physicists’ intuition. Analogies from the macroscopic world can help scientists visualize quantum-like phenomena more easily. Daniel Harris, then a doctoral student at MIT, turned to a quirky relationship between liquid droplets and a vibrating bath.
The vibration stops the droplet from assimilating into the bath, and it bounces across the surface instead. The droplet and the waves it creates mimic some of the statistical behaviors of quantum particles — except they’re visible to the naked eye. The photo is one of several hundred Harris took for his doctorate, all snapped with an off-the-shelf camera.
American lobster larva Credit: Jesica Waller, Halley McVeigh and Noah Oppenheim
As a master’s student in marine biology at the University of Maine, Jesica Waller spent the summer taking pictures of baby lobsters. Increasingly warm and acidic oceans affect many marine species, and so Waller raised thousands of lobsters in the lab — no easy task, since young lobsters tend to eat one another — to see how different climate-change scenarios alter their development.
This image of a live three-week-old specimen was one of thousands Waller took. It captures the distinct, delicate hairs on the legs. Since lobsters have very poor vision, they rely on their leg hairs for sensory tasks such as finding food. Adults have them too, meaning baby and grown-up lobsters alike taste with their feet.
Weedy seadragon life cycle Credit: Stephanie Rozzo
During her time volunteering at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, freelance science illustrator Stephanie Rozzo helped clean the seahorse exhibit. Over time, she found herself enchanted by their colors and movements. Rozzo knew she had her next illustration subject when one male began carrying eggs (as males of the species do).
She rendered an expectant pair of seadragons — native Australian fish closely related to seahorses — in acrylic paint with their seaweed habitat in graphite. The work depicts the species’ life stages from embryonic fry through adulthood.
The FtsZ ring: a multilayered protein network Credit: Jennifer E. Fairman
When her colleague Jie Xiao approached her to make an illustration for a journal article, Jennifer Fairman didn’t know just how challenging the assignment would be. Xiao was studying E. coli bacteria. Her team had revealed the arrangement of proteins, including one called FtsZ, at the site where E. coli bacterium divides.
Though she was working for a scientific audience, Fairman says she hopes the layperson can appreciate the complexity of the microscopic world in the image. Harold Erickson, a cell biologist at Duke University who has studied FtsZ but wasn’t involved in the research, called the model “quite an achievement.”
POSTERS & GRAPHICS
The trapping mechanism of the common bladderwort Credit: Wai-Man Chan
The common bladderwort is a diminutive aquatic plant with fetching yellow flowers that lives on ponds and lakes in Asia and Europe. But under the surface, it hides a carnivorous secret: 1-inch chambers — or bladders — along its branches that suck in unsus¬pecting prey.
Wai-Man Chan, a graduate student in biomedical visualization at the University of Illinois at Chicago, saw a plastic model of a bladderwort at the Field Museum in Chicago, and says she was intrigued that the tiny, bulbous bladder could contain such a powerful trap.
Her poster captures the dramatic moment just before the green monster ensnares a passing water flea, presenting the organism’s anatomy in exquisite — and appropriately creepy — detail.
Antarctica: a chromatic paradox Credit: Skye Moret
Even after nine trips to Antarctica as a marine-science technician, Skye Moret is still awed by the sea life that surrounds the icy continent. The waters brim with yellow sea stars, pink sea cucumbers, and delicate purple octopuses. To show off the vibrancy of the sub-marine environment, Moret compared 50 land and seascapes from above the surface with 50 shallow-water shots from below. She sampled the pixels from each image, and ordered them by hue and value.
The resulting visualization hints at the color and diversity in the Southern Ocean. Moret wants to awe viewers but also remind them of climate change’s reach. “Life underneath the surface is warming also — it’s threatened and vulnerable, and it’s typically neglected in the dialogue,” she says.
A year in the life of Earth’s CO2 Credit: Bernhard Jenny, Bojan Šavric, Johannes Liem, William M. Putman, Kayvon Sharghi, Aaron E. Lepsch and Patrick Lynch
While a professor at Oregon State, cartographer Bernhard Jenny made this visualization, which shows how carbon dioxide travels around the globe.
The work builds on research by NASA meteorologist Bill Putman, whose team modeled atmospheric CO2 flows and created a video of the result. Jenny integrated the video with an interface that allows users to reposition the globe and explore the data themselves.
“We wanted to make this video as engaging as possible to illustrate how humans change our planet,” Jenny says.
A visual introduction to machine learning Credit: Stephanie Yee and Tony Chu
As an employee of a company that provides digital security through machine learning, Stephanie Yee spent a lot of time familiarizing clients with the secret sauce behind her product. So she and her colleague, designer Tony Chu, set out to create an interactive graphic that would do the explaining for them.
The pair chose a topic they thought would be intuitive to most people — real estate prices — and created an interactive environment that builds in complexity as the user scrolls. In the first 30 days, the site got 250,000 page views worldwide. Feedback showed Chu and Yee that experts in many fields could use their interactives. The duo is collaborating with academics to tailor their next set of explanatory machine-learning visualizations to different disciplines.
VIDEO (SCREEN SHOTS)
Experts’ Choice and People’s Choice
Coral bleaching: A breakdown of symbiosis Credit: Fabian de Kok-Mercado, Satoshi Amagai, Mark Nielsen, Dennis Liu and Steve Palumbi
Corals are a quirky species — they’re invertebrate animals built out of genetically identical polyps, which collect together into massive underwater reef structures. For food, they rely on a symbiotic relationship with algae, which make sugar and nutrients through photosynthesis.
This video, created by a team at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, envisions a reef seen from miles above the planet. Then, it zooms in to the microscopic structures where the algae live.
The animation details how rising ocean temperatures can prompt coral to eject the algae — a process known as coral bleaching. Without their symbiotic partners, bleached coral slowly die.
Entomology Animated. Episode 1: Rifa madness Credit: Eric Keller
Engineers use origami principles to design spacecraft solar panels and other devices that flex or unfurl, as in this video by a lab at Brigham Young University. Larry Howell, the team leader, says the work is just plain fun.
“There’s so much potential for applications. These things can really make a difference.”
The best thing about a day in my life on the lookout for gravitational waves is that I never know when it will begin.
Like many of my colleagues working for the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), the morning of Monday, September 14, 2015 caught me completely off-guard. For years, we’ve been joking that Advanced LIGO would be so sensitive we might just detect one the very first day it turns on. In retrospect, it’s remarkable how close to reality that joke turned out to be.
LIGO is listening for gravitational waves – one of the last unproven predictions of Einstein’s theory of general relativity. In his view of the universe, space and time are fluid things that depend on an observer’s frame of reference. For example, time passes just a (very) little bit more slowly for those who work on the ground floor of an office building as compared to their peers on the 101st floor. Why? They’re deeper in Earth’s gravitational pull.
Gravitational waves explained.
Einstein predicted that gravitational waves are formed when matter and energy warp space and time. Their effects – until now unseen – sound bizarre. As a gravitational wave passes by, an observer will see the distance between objects change. All around us space is oscillating, distances are changing and we are being stretched and squeezed by passing gravitational waves. Only the most extreme objects in the universe can bend space enough to produce ripples that are measurable here on Earth. The effect is so tiny that we fail to notice it even with the most sensitive measurements – but Advanced LIGO was designed to change all that by directly measuring tiny ripples in space itself.
Although Advanced LIGO had collected data off and on over the summer of 2015, September 14 was slated to be the first official day of its first observing run. From those who built and commissioned the advanced LIGO detectors to those who characterized and analyzed the data, we’d all been preparing for decades to make this kind of discovery, but I don’t know if any of us was truly ready for a detection – and on Day One, as luck would have it.
Hearing what we were listening for
Like others on the team, I should have been woken up in the middle of the night when LIGO heard that first gravitational wave – but it was so early in the run that I hadn’t even had a chance to enable my text message alerts! Instead, I read about the event, termed GW150914, on my phone as I walked to campus hours after it had been observed. It is difficult to describe the level of anticipation regarding a possible event. But I can say that if you have waited for over 12 years for such a discovery, as I have, it certainly is not something to take lightly when it happens.
Like everyone else at the time, though, I thought this signal was just a test of the analysis system, called a hardware injection. I spent the rest of the morning assuming as much. But minutes before a 2:00 p.m. seminar that same day, we received word from each LIGO observatory that no tests had been performed. My student, two postdocs and I all went to our seminar looking like we had seen a ghost! The rest of our colleagues in attendance were not part of LIGO, so we couldn’t say a word. Our silence stood for months to come.
The LIGO Scientific Collaboration (LSC), of which I am a member, is currently made up of more than 1,000 people from dozens of institutions and 15 countries worldwide. There are two LIGO instruments, one in Louisiana and one in Washington. And we work with the Virgo Collaboration that operates a detector in Italy and the GEO600 detector team in Germany. Since we are all so far apart, we met by teleconference so folks who are at the observatories and folks who are analyzing the data could all discuss what was happening and whether or not to share the information more broadly.
At first it was unclear which of many possibilities could be responsible for the GW150914 signal. It would have to be a major astronomical event that released immense amounts of energy – such as a binary merger, a nearby supernova or some completely unforeseen occurrence. Initial investigations indicated that it could be a binary black hole merger – two black holes that are driven to smash together as they release energy in the form of gravitational waves.
These plots show the signals of gravitational waves detected by the twin LIGO observatories at Livingston, Louisiana, and Hanford, Washington. The signals came from two merging black holes, each about 30 times the mass of our sun, lying 1.3 billion light-years away. LIGO, CC BY-ND
Over the next few weeks, we worked to assess the significance of GW150914. Its probability of being the real thing was simply off the charts and had virtually no plausible explanation as anything but a gravitational wave. There was just no way random noise could have caused such a loud, consistent signal between detectors that matched the expectation of general relativity so perfectly.
From then on, the collaboration shifted into high gear, preparing additional scientific publications to provide all the juicy details about the detection and interpretation of GW150914. We now know that gravitational waves can be measured, binary black holes exist and that there are perhaps far more detectable sources of gravitational waves than we had anticipated.
GW150914 stretched and squeezed our nearby space by about 1 part in 1021. This is equivalent to squeezing the entire Milky Way galaxy by a typical person’s height. As you might imagine, it is nearly impossible to measure such a small change in distance. To do so, LIGO uses high-power lasers, ultra high vacuum and some of the most advanced optics ever built.
The basic idea is simple: LIGO has two 4-km-long arms built at 90 degrees with respect to one another. A high-power laser beam is split in two to travel down each arm separately. When the laser gets to the end, it’s reflected back by a mirror. If one arm is longer than another, due to the change in space caused by a gravitational wave, then the laser light won’t arrive back at the same time in each arm.
We continuously record the recombined laser light; it encodes how the gravitational wave causes space to stretch and squeeze at frequencies that are very similar to what the human ear can hear. That’s why we often think of LIGO as listening to the universe. In fact, LIGO records its data as what’s basically an audio file. You can literally listen to the gravitational waves detected with LIGO using headphones.
Colliding black holes and neutron stars are some of LIGO’s primary targets, though we also search for supernovae, spinning isolated neutron stars and gravitational waves left over from the birth of the universe. The LIGO detectors, for the most part, are sensitive to sources all over the sky, which means a single detector can’t tell from which direction a gravitational wave arrived. However, using multiple detectors we can localize the source. All the gravitational wave detectors across the globe work together to make observations of the same signals at the same time (within tens of milliseconds).
I’m part of a team that is searching for merging neutron stars and black holes in near real time. We hope to know within seconds that a gravitational wave has reached the Earth. With this knowledge, we can inform other astronomers who can point their telescopes in the direction of the event in the hope that the gravitational wave will have an electromagnetic counterpart. Having information from both channels is a bit like having both sound and picture when watching a film. The movie would be far less interesting with only one and not the other.
Unlike many telescopes, LIGO can observe at any time of day, though it is sensitive to environmental noise that’s often caused by human beings working nearby. Observing at night tends to be easier, when most people are in bed. The team I work with is always on call. If a gravitational wave event is detected, we should know within a minute and receive a call to our cellphones as well as a text message with details about the event – just as happened on September 14.
Beginning of a new era
Detecting this first gravitational wave event has changed the world. It confirms the last great prediction of a revolutionary theory that’s now over 100 years old. But it doesn’t stop there. We’re still listening for more gravitational waves; soon Advanced LIGO will detect them regularly – and each one will tell us something new about the universe.
As observations become commonplace, we will enter a new era of gravitational wave astronomy and start to map out just how black holes and neutron stars are born, evolve and eventually die. Someday we might even be surprised to detect something we never expected. From now on, every time my phone rings, that’s what I will be hoping for.