Category Archives: Explainer

Surprise! The Pandemic Has Made People More Science Literate

WIRED

Despite rampant misinformation, Covid-19 has pushed science into the zeitgeist, as people have absorbed new words and how scientific discovery actually works.

FOR THREE GENERATIONS, Betsy Sneller’s family has sipped something they call “Cold Drink.” It’s a sweet mix of leftover liquids, stuff like orange juice and the remnants from cans of fruit, a concept devised by Sneller’s grandmother during the Great Depression. “All the little dregs get mixed together, and it tastes like a fruity concoction,” Sneller says. Cold Drink is an idea—and a name—born from crisis.

Sneller is now a sociolinguist at Michigan State University who studies how language changes in real time. For nearly two years, Sneller has analyzed weekly audio diaries from Michiganders to understand how the pandemic has influenced language in people of all ages, a project initially called MI COVID Diaries. “We find very commonly that people will come up with terms to reflect the social realities that they’re living through,” they say. “New words were coming up almost every week.” As Covid-19 sank its spikes into daily life, people added words and phrases to their vocabularies. Flatten the curve. Antibodies. Covidiots. “Shared crises, like the coronavirus pandemic, cause these astronomical leaps in language change,” Sneller says.

But Sneller has also noticed a more substantive trend emerging: People are internalizing, using, and remembering valuable scientific information. “Because the nature of this crisis is so science-oriented, we’re seeing that a broad swath of people are becoming a little bit more literate in infectious diseases,” they say.

Read the full story in WIRED.

The Artificial Leaf: Copying Nature to Fight Climate Change

ACS ChemMatters Magazine

An ancient chemical process enabled Earth to become a lush place teeming with life. Now researchers are replicating this process in an attempt to slow global warming.

Every plant, animal, and person owes their life to one sequence of chemical reactions: photosynthesis. The process, which converts water and carbon dioxide into food using sunlight, first evolved in cyanobacteria more than 2 billion years ago.

That’s right. Plants weren’t the first organisms to develop photosynthesis, though they are better known for it. Cyanobacteria are the ones that originally filled the atmosphere with photosynthesis’s gaseous by-product, oxygen (O2), which set the stage for more diverse life on Earth.

As beneficiaries of photosynthesis, humans depend on plants in a sort of carbon seesaw. Plants take in CO2 and release O2. They store that carbon as sugar. Hanging vines, grass, and trees all grow by pulling carbon atoms out of the air. We do the reverse, taking in O2 and releasing CO2. Finally, everything we eat completes the handoff: Human eats plant (or the animal who already did), human exhales, plant stores carbon, and the cycle continues.

This seesaw is part of the much broader carbon cycle that has affected the radiation balance of our planet. Cutting down huge swaths of forests and the burning of carbon-based fossil fuels causes the levels of CO2, a major greenhouse gas, to rise. And plants on Earth along with other natural parts of the carbon cycle can’t restore the balance on their own.

But what if we could copy what plants do to grab some of that excess CO2 to make fuels sustainably, instead of relying so heavily on fossilized carbon?

Read the full story in the October 2021 issue of ChemMatters

How to Make Fashion Sustainable

ACS CHEMMATTERS

Take a minute to think about what you’re wearing right now. Not the colors or cuts of fabric you grabbed out of your closet this morning—but the textiles your clothes are made of.

Before your clothes became clothes, they were raw resources that were collected, processed, woven into textiles, then cut and sewn into the garments on your back. And their life cycle doesn’t end there. Nearly 90% of clothing takes an inevitable trip from closet to landfill. The problem is that although this process provides short-term convenience for customers and the fashion industry, in the long run, it’s not sustainable. Making and transporting clothes consumes raw materials and, at every step in the process, emits greenhouse gases.

Read the full story in ACS ChemMatters (Printed in the April 2021 Issue)

These Non-Lethal Methods Encouraged by Science Can Keep Wolves From Killing Livestock

SMITHSONIAN

Experts say old, repurposed techniques and new technologies may be better than bullets at curbing attacks by the predators

Nestled amid butterscotch-scented Ponderosa pines in Idaho’s backcountry one sunny, summer day in 1991, Suzanne Stone scooped her hands around her chin and let out an “Ahwooooo.” Stone, now an expert in wolf restoration heading the International Wildlife Coexistence Network, was then an intern at the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). After she sent two boisterous wolf howls rippling through nearby meadows, she listened curiously for a reply. Instead, a bullet from a distant rifle whistled just above her and her supervisor’s heads. Steve Fritts, a leading wolf scientist at USFWS, hurried Stone back to their car before reporting what happened. Hunting was legal in the area, but firing at federal employees—even unknowingly—was not. Federal investigators later traced the shot to a hunting outfitter hundreds of yards away.

“I knew then what wolves were facing in the backcountry,” she says. For nearly three decades, wolf populations in Idaho have been on the rise, pitting local communities and powerful interest groups against each other, a situation that plays out in many areas across the country where wolves exist. Hunters contend that wolves have fully recovered and now deplete elk and deer populations while some ranchers argue wolves need to be killed to keep livestock alive. Conservationists, on the other hand, say that the apex predators contribute vitally to a healthy ecosystem and are still functionally extinct in about 85 percent of their historic range.

In October, the Trump administration delisted gray wolves from the endangered species list, a move celebrated by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and Safari Club International, a hunter advocacy group, in a joint statement. The conservationist group Defenders of Wildlife, meanwhile, issued a statement of their own calling the delisting “premature and reckless.” They have joined other conservation groups to file a formal intent to sue the USFWS soon after the law takes effect in January.

Read the full story in Smithsonian

Are Forever Chemicals Harming Ocean Life?

THE REVELATOR

Here’s what we know (and don’t know) about how dangerous PFAS chemicals travel ocean currents and harm wildlife — and what that could mean for humans.

In seabird after seabird, Anna Robuck found something concerning: per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, lurking around vital organs.

“Brain, liver, kidney, lung, blood, heart,” Robuck says, rattling off a few hiding spots before pausing to recall the rest. Robuck, a Ph.D. candidate in chemical oceanography at the University of Rhode Island, quickly settles on a simpler response: She found the chemicals everywhere she looked.

PFAS — a group of synthetic chemicals — are often called “forever chemicals” due to their quasi-unbreakable molecular bonds and knack for accumulating in living organisms. That foreverness is less of a design flaw than a design feature: The stubborn, versatile molecules help weatherproof clothing; smother flames in firefighting foam; and withstand heat and grime on nonstick pans.

Through consumption and disposal, the chemicals seep into ecosystems and bodies, where they have been linked to cancers, pregnancy complications, and reproductive and immune dysfunction. Recent attention has focused on the prevalence of PFAS in drinking water.

“Over the past 10-15 years we’ve really developed this super negative picture of what PFAS do to humans,” Robuck says. “But we’ve barely scratched the surface of that in wildlife.”

Read the full story in The Revelator