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Posts Tagged ‘research’

Patterns In The Sand

Mother Nature may be the world’s greatest mathematician.

Bonni Kealy saw that firsthand in how tiger bush will grow in patterns found throughout other parts of nature, like the spots on a cat.

Tiger Bush in Sierra de la Gessa, Spain. Creative Commons Flickr photo courtesy of Jorge Franganillo,

“Math isn’t just about equations,” Kealy said. “It’s beautiful and natural. You see it around you every day.”

Indeed, mathematicians often tease out the numerical underpinnings of seemingly random phenomena, discerning patterns in everything from the coats of felines to algae-filled water, Kealy said. In effect, two dissimilar things are interacting in predictable ways, and a mathematician can describe how.

Kealy, 29, and her advisor David Wollkind started to create a new modeling equation for the spread of tiger bush, a plant unique to arid and semi-arid areas, by mining the past, Kealy said.

They used existing pattern formulas as a foundation for their work, but the earlier models worked only on sloped land. Kealy and Wollkind’s model works on flat land, a more common habitat for tiger bush. It focuses on how water spreads over the soil surface and interacts with plants as vegetation expires.

Kealy and Wollkind refined their formula and presented it at the Joint Mathematics Meetings earlier this year in Boston. They received so many invitations to speak at the conference that they had to turn down a few opportunities.

“The work has kind of taken on a life of its own and grown,” Kealy said. “The Joint Mathematics Meetings is kind of the Big Kahuna of math research, so we are getting some recognition.”

The work also has practical implications beyond the simple beauty of math. The equation has joined an ongoing discussion on stopping desertification, the expansion of desert landscapes.

“The big picture is to help understand this vegetation in arid climates and prevent any further desertification,” she said. “That and to show that when math works, it’s really cool.”

According to the International Fund for Agricultural Development, one-fourth of the earth is already desertified. An additional 12 million hectares are lost each year to soil degradation. This equates to losses of $42 billion in income from agriculture and other lost infrastructure.

Kealy thinks her and Wollkind’s equation can help, but she still sees room for improvement. She hopes to adjust the equation for new variables, like how water moves below the soil surface.

“This whole thing seems a little surreal,” Kealy said. “You can’t beat the chance to see your own math in action.”


Fresh and fruity goodness from WSU’s Tukey Orchard

A couple of days into fall—even though it feels like summer here in Pullman—and I’m craving some fruit. So I jump at the chance to head out past the bears and the golf course to Tukey Orchard and grab some fresh apples.

Apple samples at WSU's Tukey Orchard

Apple samples at WSU's Tukey Orchard

About ten varieties await me when I arrive at the warehouse on the edge of the orchard. I’m not an apple connoisseur, so I chop off samples and do a taste test. Some are sweet and crispy, others frankly a little soft for me. I end up with a bag of Berry and a bag of Tydeman’s, two toothsome varieties I’d probably never find in the grocery store, especially at 85 cents a pound.

Of course, Tukey is not all about my enjoyment of sweet fresh apples. Tree fruit research and education has long been part of Washington State University. Those efforts will be advanced even further by the largest gift in the University’s history. Apple and pear growers throughout the state agreed to make a historic investment of $27 million over the next eight years to support tree fruit research and extension.

While not all tasty Tukey produce is organic, they have several organic acres as part of WSU’s organic farm. That makes it even more appropriate to indulge, because last week was Washington Organic Week. The Tilth Producers of Washington organized the celebration with events ranging from organic chocolate tastings in Seattle to “Forks Up For Farmers” meals supporting local farms.

Apples on sale at Tukey Orchard

Apples on sale at Tukey Orchard

According to the state Department of Agriculture, Washington is second only to California in the U.S. for production of organic food and leads the country in producing organic apples, pears, cherries, sweet corn, green peas, snap beans, and onions.

More fruit sales are on the way at Tukey this fall. Next up for me: pears. The orchard has 83 varieties of apples, 11 varieties of pears, cherries and more, so I’ll be trying them out for a while. And Tukey will continue to help develop our state’s signature fruits.

As Vancouver newspaper The Columbian pointed out in an editorial praising the new tree fruit grant, “If you enjoy eating apples and pears—and as a Washingtonian, you’re obligated to—then you can rest assured about the future of those crops in the state.”

WSU's Tukey Orchard, late September 2011.

WSU's Tukey Orchard, late September 2011.

The Myth—and Psychology—of the Better Bat

Lloyd Smith spends a lot of time pondering the performance of bats and balls—aluminum, wood, baseballs, softballs. It’s his job, and he does it well enough that his Sports Science Laboratory is the official bat testing facility for the NCAA.

But while the WSU associate professor of engineering might use his ball cannons and high speed cameras to facilitate an arms race of ever bouncier balls and more powerful bats, the lab focuses more on uniformity, or to mix a metaphor, a level playing field among the tools of the trade.

Flickr photo courtesty of MelvinSchlubman,

In fact, if you ask him what bat is best, he can’t tell you. That would be a conflict of interest, an implicit endorsement of the people he is supposed to help regulate. Moreover, he says, it just doesn’t matter that much.

It’s a common misconception that there is an enormous difference between bats, he says. By design, the highest-performing softball bat is 10 percent more powerful than a wood bat. The best college bat is 5 percent better.

“The big difference is in player ability,” he says, referring to an on-the-field study showing as much as a 20 percent variation between players.

“When parents come to me and say, ‘Hey, which bat should I buy for my kid,’ I tell them, ‘Go to the weight room and work out. Go play the game. Go work on your skills.’ That’s going to make a lot more difference than spending $300 on the latest and greatest bat.”

Then there are the intangibles that lie outside the realm of measurable physics, like bat comfort. Smith can measure 100 bats and determine the best performer, “but if a player is convinced that this other bat is better, what does that psychology do? What factor does that have?”

That may even have been a factor in the use of illegally corked bats. A study co-authored by Smith in the recent American Journal of Physics found a ball bounced better off a solid wood bat than one hollowed out and filled with a material like cork.

It could be that the lighter corked bat improves a player’s ability to turn on the ball, and a player like Sammy Sosa—caught with a corked bat in 2003—was aiming to improve his batting average, not power. Or it could go back to that intangible psychological factor: He thought the bat worked better, and thinking made it so.

“Suddenly superstition does have a reality,” says Smith, “but we can’t really measure that here, so we stick with the science part.”

To learn more, see “The Physics of Cheating in Baseball” at



Plate tectonics key to life on Earth?

Tectonic plates. Courtesy US Geological Survey

Tectonic plates. Courtesy US Geological Survey

Is our vital blue planet the last of its kind?  Or has it always been one of a kind?  From the perspective of post-modern geologists, planet Earth is like no other solar body yet discovered.

“I think when you live on the Earth, you take it for granted,” says Katie Cooper, who thoughtfully considers such esoteric questions for a living. As one of a relatively new group of geologists who use computer simulations to study the thermal and tectonic evolution of our planet, her viewpoint is decidedly celestial.

Cooper, assistant professor in the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, studies the broad area of geodynamics—particularly the evolution of Earth as a planetary system. Specifically, she models how the three main layers of our planet—core, mantle, and crust (lithosphere)—interact and change over time.

“I look at the Earth as a giant heat engine which drives all of the geologic activity we see at the surface,” she says. “In the past, the core was hotter than it is today. The planet is slowly cooling and that affects everything on the lithosphere.”

That cooling takes place in large part through thermal convection. Like boiling water or the slow movement of oil blobs in a lava lamp, hot plastic rock from the Earth’s mantle is constantly rising toward the surface, where heat and energy are released in hot springs, earthquakes, or volcanic eruptions. At the same time, cooler rock is sinking toward the interior core.

This steady interplay leads to the phenomenon of plate tectonics where vast puzzle-like sections of Earth’s crust “float” on top of hot rock in the mantle—and imperceptibly migrate across the globe.

Earth stands alone

Although plate tectonics is often taken for granted as standard planetary modus operandi, it turns out that Earth is a world apart from other planets.

“Plate tectonics is unique to Earth as far as we know right now,” says Cooper. “The big question is if this is unique to our solar system? Our galaxy?  The universe?”

Not only unique, but possibly essential to life itself. Through its part in cooling the planet’s interior, plate tectonics allows Earth to maintain a magnetic field that shields our world from dangerous solar radiation and, in effect, creates a safe haven for life to flourish. Which presents Cooper with another question—did plate tectonics create optimal conditions for the initial occurrence of life?  No one knows for sure.

Plate tectonics—the next generation

For the first half of the twentieth century, geologists suspected that Earth’s continents had once formed a single land mass before breaking up and drifting aimlessly apart. The continental drift hypothesis was backed up by fossil evidence but no one could explain the actual physical processes driving it.

That changed in 1963, however, when Princeton professor, Harry Hess, used WWII submarine-hunting technology to discover unusual magnetic polarity in the ocean floor. It was concluded that hot rock from the mantle was rising up through the lithosphere and pushing the sea floor—and the continents on either side—apart.

This finding provided the mechanism to explain the purposeful movement of Earth’s plates and led to the development of the first theory of plate tectonics.

Today Cooper is among a new generation of geologists who study what could be called “post” plate tectonics. Taking the field up a notch, she investigates similar processes on other planets and asks why Earth has plate tectonics in the first place.

“Is it the preferred mode of operation?” she asks. “Does it help the planet lose heat most efficiently? Is it a coincidence?”

Using a computer cluster of 600 processors working together as a single unit, Cooper attempts to unlock these mysteries by crunching enormous calculations that often run days or weeks to generate results.

Doing these “paper and pencil calculations” as she refers to them, Cooper builds computer models of planets and applies basic laws of physics to see if the theories are applicable.