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Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

WSU Geochemist Filing Far-flung Dispatches for The New York Times

In Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, pretty much the greatest novel ever written about journalism, William Boot is sent to cover an African civil war with a ton of baggage, including a canoe and a cleft stick to carry his dispatches. The cleft stick has since become a metaphor for far-flung journalistic enterprise and the lengths a reporter will go to get a story back to the home office.

Cold and scenic: WSU geologist Jeff Vervoort took in this view recently on a trip to the striking Koettlitz Glacier.

Instead of a cleft stick, Jeff Vervoort has a laptop and a “very, very small bandwidth,” text-only connection from the Central Trans Antarctica Mountain field camp at Antarctica’s Beardmore Glacier field station. That’s about halfway between the McMurdo Station, the continent’s largest community, and the South Pole.

Where William Boot sent brief, easily misinterpreted telegrams to the Beast, Vervoort is filing for the New York Times’ “Scientist at Work” blog. Times editor James Gorman launched this modern version of the old field journal earlier this year “to give scientists in the field a chance to describe what they do as they are doing it.”

“I am obviously thrilled,” says Vervoort, who majored in English as an undergraduate and now specializes in dating rocks by their chemical signatures.

The first dispatch, by colleague and University of Minnesota-Duluth geoscientist John Goodge, went up on the Times site yesterday. Vervoort and Goodge are now scheduled to have alternate posts as their team spends the next five weeks gathering rock samples over about 1,000 miles.

Logistical challenges aside, it’s not hard to interest people in Antarctic science, Vervoort says in a recent email to Pullman:

“This place appeals to many people on so many levels for many reasons. It is the land of extremes (they  like to call Antarctica the coldest, windiest, and driest place on Earth) as well as unknowns.”

The continent also has an ancient story to tell about climate change, he says.

“Many people think of Antarctica as an ice covered continent and couldn’t imagine it any other way.  But 40 million years ago or so there were not permanent ice sheets on Antarctica, during a period of extreme global warming.  The best guess is that these started forming 35-40 million years ago. Sitting up here at the edge of the polar plateau in the austral summer with temperatures a little below zero degrees F and a stiff wind blowing, however, it is hard to imagine that Antarctica warming up any time soon.”

Blogger/researchers Jeff Vervoort, left, and John Goodge enjoy t-shirt temperatures before heading out on the ice.

The research can also tell an even older story about the earth’s crust, says Goodge in the first “Scientist at Work” post:

“Antarctica was a key piece in Pangea, Gondwana and Rodinia (huge supercontinents formed by the assembly of many of today’s familiar continents at roughly 250, 500 and 1,000 million years ago), and knowing more about its geologic architecture can help to refine the picture of global paleogeography as far back as 1 billion years ago.”

For more on Vervoort’s trip, see our previous post, “Journey to the Bottom of the Earth.”

Update–A few hours after this was posted, Vervoort’s first blog went up on the Times site. Here’s an excerpt:

It is probably impossible to prepare yourself before getting here for what to expect from this large ice-covered continent at the bottom of the world. Like many people, I have seen pictures and videos of Antarctica. I am also familiar with different scientific aspects of Antarctica’s oceans, climate and geology, and I had talked about this trip extensively with John Goodge, the leader of the current expedition, before coming down here. But nothing completely prepares you for this place.

Read more…

The Ritters Josh and Bob Talk About “The Curse”

Josh Ritter headed out to be a scientist but became a singer-songwriter.

His parents are longtime Washington State University neuroscientists, as well as the people Josh credits with being “the single greatest influence on my music.”

The worlds of science and music combine in “The Curse,” a song on Josh’s latest album, “So Runs the World Away.” Brought to video by drummer-puppeteer Liam Hurley, it’s the love story of an archaeologist and a mummy. In the hands of a nuanced writer like Josh, or in the mind of a nuanced thinker like his father Bob, the story is prone to varied interpretation.

Somehow that came up during a recent dinner with the parents Ritter as we researched a recent feature for Washington State Magazine on their lives and work. Bob said he thought of the song as a parable of science—the investigator embraces a subject for a lifetime but grows old and passes. Meanwhile, science continues apace.

“That song is like a person that has her career and the career kind of consumes her. In other words, the mummy is dead. She finds the mummy, displays the mummy and becomes so involved with the mummy and spends her life with the mummy. The mummy kind of comes to life and of course she gets old and dies. That’s the way I see that song. The science goes on. The mummy goes on. But the investigator becomes a thing of the past. That’s not a bad thing. It’s just the love and the attention she devotes consumes her and makes her discovery a household word.”

We asked Josh to comment on his theory, and since we were working on a personality profile, we asked what kind of eclectic mind might have such an interpretation. His response is indirect but intriguing.

“The luckiest people get a vocation.  They are called to do the things they do, to commit our lives to specific endeavors.  Often they themselves are the only ones hearing the voice and what they do seems crazy to other people, but they do it anyway because they are called and because they love it.  The world is filled with these people who have been lucky enough to find their vocation.  They find it because we are influenced by the people who have come before them.  Science is no monolith, it’s the continuing process of discovering and passing down knowledge from hand to hand over the course of millennia.  They’re light-bearers, and this, in the grand scheme of things, is about the best thing any of us can hope to be.”

Science in the Sky: The WSU Planetarium

Note: This is the first in our new series, “Scene Around Campus: A Glimpse into WSU’s Corners and Curiosities.” Join us as we explore the many nooks and crannies of campus that residents and visitors might otherwise miss.

Welcome to “The Whoa Moment.”

You’re ushered into a room down a musty hallway. You take a seat, the lights go out, and — after a moment of darkness — the night sky flickers above you, a canopy of fuzzy white dots representing the universe as seen from Pullman. You forget about the world outside as you’re lost in space.

The Washington State University Planetarium is a 1960s star projector tucked away in Sloan Hall. WSU astronomers Michael Allen, Guy Worthey and Ana Dodgen lovingly keep it clean and in working order.

The planetarium is dated and clunky, but the astronomers’ faces light up when they talk about the roughly 2,000 fifth- and sixth-graders who visit every year on field trips.

“The little kids get so excited about what we’re telling them,” Dodgen says. “It’s a way to spark their curiosity in astronomy and science.”

Set up in 1962, the planetarium is likely older than these kids’ parents and possibly their grandparents. Working with the WSU Foundation, the astronomers are trying to collect donations to update the facility with a digital projector. Mostly, they’re hoping for a big donor, someone star-happy enough to hand over $50,000 or $70,000.

“Everyone loves the planetarium, but in terms of loving it enough to empty your wallet … that hasn’t happened yet,” Worthey says.

Within the planetarium, the projector is run from a main console with knobs for each celestial body. There are motors to animate daily, monthly and yearly paths. The console looks like a 1920s radio.

“This is like Frankenstein’s laboratory down here,” Worthey jokes during a recent visit, swinging Mars — a tiny red dot — across the screen.

Despite fuzziness and flickering, the northern hemisphere mostly works. From certain angles, pieces of the projector, a big black globe dotted with pinholes, block much of the rest of the sky. If you pick the wrong seat, the Southern Cross and Alpha Centauri might be obliterated.

The planetarium is closed to the public and used mainly for undergraduate science classes and local middle and elementary schools. However, WSU and community groups can schedule free shows through Allen or the physics department at or 509-335-1279.

Minding One’s Hrs and Zs

Work a weird shift and you can assume your sleep will be off. Angela Bowen, research assistant at the Sleep and Performance Research Center at Washington State University Spokane, calculated as much in a study presented this week at SLEEP 2010, the 24th annual meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies LLC, in San Antonio.

Using mathematical modeling, Bowen compared the sleep and fatigue one might expect between typical working schedules and less desirable ones. Start work between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m., and you can expect to get eight hours of sleep in. But pull a shift between 8 p.m. and midnight, and you might be working on less than five hours of sleep.

Flickr image courtesy of Fabbio--

“In comparison to day time schedules, the night schedules had much less predicted sleep and greater fatigue on shift,” Bowen writes in an email from San Antonio—and yes, she’s having a wonderful time.

What’s surprising is that, if you’re going to take a graveyard shift, you’ll want to make it a true graveyard shift and start after midnight. It’s a timing play and it lets a worker sleep right before going to work, arriving rested.

The research has implications for so-called hours-of-service regulations, which currently aim to reduce  fatigue by limiting the hours one works in a day. Such regulations ignore the body’s circadian rhythms, says Bowen. If her modeling is validated in real or simulated work environments, she says, it can be used to recommend more sleep-friendly schedules.

The SLEEP 2010 abstract supplement is available for download on the website of the journal SLEEP at

Go here to read some of the news coverage of Bowen’s study.