A frequent commentary chronicling the creative and intellectual
excitement of discovery at Washington State University.

Brought to you by Washington State Magazine

Posts Tagged ‘New York Times’

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…

Remember that memory story…

If you enjoyed reading my WSM story on memory, check out this article from Monday’s New York Times. It gets into one of the deepest questions about memory, which is, how and when does the brain select which memories to keep and which to discard? We take in far more information every day than we can remember, and since our brains are of finite size, they can’t retain a record of everything.

New York Times article on memoryThe memories with the greatest staying power, says WSU psychologist Jay Wright, are those that are important to us personally, especially those with a strong emotional element. Such memories seem to be engraved so deeply in our minds that we can vividly recall a moment that occurred decades ago, even if we haven’t thought about it for years.

But scientists don’t know how that happens. The brain records many things in short-term memory but only a few make it into long-term storage. The hypothesis is that the brain has a mechanism to strengthen the synapses, or active connections between nerve cells, that encode memories that the brain deems to be worth keeping longer.

The work described in the NYT article is a big step in understanding that process. Researchers at the SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, working with rats, have identified a protein that accumulates in heavily-used nerve endings, those that receive a lot of input from other neurons. The protein probably has something to do with stabilizing those synapses and creating long-term memories, because the scientists have also found that a drug that interferes with the protein destroys the memory of something the rats had learned weeks or months ago.