What’s the Big Idea?: We Need to Focus on the Big Picture

global warming
Oh, the irony…
Photo credit: Flickr/Vineus

The Big Picture?

This week, the House of Representatives’ Science, Space and Technology Committee unveiled the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science and Technology (FIRST) Act. This legislation wants to prioritize the way the National Science Foundation funds projects in life and chemical sciences, computer science, and mathematics based upon how the projects specifically address national needs. To increase the muddling between science and politics, the NSF would be required to justify the projects funded to Congress and how each benefits the national interests. The measure comes as the Republican-controlled House is pressured to cut federal spending and this would filter out projects with no tangible or timely returns. The bill would also limit the NSF from funding projects that already have funding from other federal agencies in an effort to prevent mission creep and double dipping. The bill fails to address how some projects are complex and have components that have benefits at multiple levels.

This legislation is the latest in a long line of efforts the GOP has used to hinder the scientific community from using its internal peer-review process to advance research and development which in turn would lead to the next generations of innovation desperately needed to sustain the United States’ leadership in science and technology. GOP efforts to appease the extremists within their party by slashing spending no matter who is affected are naive and short-sighted to say the least.

Beginning with the powers of the oil and gas industries masquerading as a conservative, grassroots Tea Party movement, conservatives have fought tirelessly to create an absurd climate debate instead of working on a bipartisan effort to ensure the sustainability of our planet. Congressional leaders have used ‘data’ gathered by conservative think tanks and biased institutes to assert the ‘science is still out’ about the man-made cause of climate change. Ultimately, what are their interests, protecting those who fund their elections or protecting…well, the rest of us? Who stands to lose by enacting cap-and-trade, emissions limits, or biofuel standards? The public as a whole? However, who wins if these and other efforts are in place to fortify our environment for future generations?

Also this week, the U.S. Global Change Research Program released the latest National Climate Assessment stating climage change is no longer a future threat. It’s here. Climatologists have sounded the alarm about global warming for over 30 years. Now the science is as solid as diamond and the consensus is strong. It is very apparent Congress will not actively take measures to grant future generations the awesome pleasure of enjoying our national parks as we have or enjoy time on local lakes or rivers. 

If there is something I’ve learned in the past couple weeks, it is the precious time we have with those we love can end at any moment. I cannot help but think what happens when I am gone? What do I leave behind? How can I show my children how much I loved them and wanted the best for them? It certainly is not doing everything possible to ensure I am victorious every election cycle by bowing to fundraisers.

What can we do to help?

 

It is past time to take back the power by electing members of Congress who can see the big picture by looking past this term in office to the selfless good they can do to help us all. The big picture is increasingly heating up as is our atmosphere.

Earth: This is Our One Shot, Don’t Blow It

Tomorrow morning, early tomorrow morning, my wife and I are heading to the hospital for a scheduled C-section. I’m going to meet my son. Over the next 20 years or so, my duty as a father is to mould and shape him into an honourable and respectable human being. This is something I do not take lightly for it is one of the purest legacies we leave.

I found myself watching Carl Sagan’s Cosmos Episode 13 this evening entitled: Who Speaks for Earth?. I was in awe of the profound and prophetic words and some points stuck with me. First, Sagan spends some time crafting an image of past civilizations with a comparison between the Greeks and Egyptians. With his explanation that Aristotle believed in two groups; Greeks and Barbarians, this concept rationalized the practice of slavery. There was no sense of a collective community to Aristotle. Sagan also explained the city of Alexandria as the first true cosmopolitan city. It was the heartbeat of innovation and discovery. Its library held invaluable volumes detailing observations and methods. It was not until the mob mentality of the religious deemed the library and its possessions as pagan that the library was razed to the delight of local politicians. It was at this point one of the most poignant statements I have ever heard was uttered…

History is full of people who out of fear or ignorance or the lust for power have destroyed treasures of immeasurable value which truly belong to all of us. We must not let it happen again.

Let that sink in….

My first instantaneous thought was of the Koch Brothers. Scientific discoveries do not belong to any one party or country. These discoveries belong to all of us because they tell of our shared kindredship. We are all in this together.

My second thought deals with the conviction Carl Sagan has to calm the rising nuclear storm among world powers, and he does it in blaring subtlety.  He could see the big picture; how all civilization could end within a short, short period of time. Thankfully, these tensions seem to have died down enough that it is not an imminent threat. But, it does remind me a very real, current threat in climate change. Perhaps, this is one reason the Cosmos series was revived.

In my opinion, the threats of climate change are much more dangerous. The outcome would be the same, total destruction, but the impacts are so subtle most don’t catch the trends. Even when all factual evidence points toward environmental collapse in the mid-range future, many do not see it as imminent or requiring even short-term mitigation.

Earth. We were given a beautiful home. Let’s not blow it.

Jumping on the Carl Sagan Bandwagon (And Following the Laws of Physics)

Embarrassingly, I have to admit something. Despite my overwhelming love of science and passion for teaching science to others, I grew up not knowing whom Carl Sagan was. Back story: I grew up in East Tennessee, the son of a mechanic and a bookkeeper. I never even opened one of Sagan’s books until my 30s. I must say, it was my loss.

I have had the privilege of listening to the stories from those who knew Carl Sagan personally. He sounded like such a sweet, endearing person that the world desperately needed and unfortunately still does. By today’s standards, Sagan was a cosmic anomaly harnessing the knowledge from learning, the oration of a great leader, and the passion to spread the wonders of the universe to the masses.

Since the premier of the new production of Cosmos, listening to everyone talk of Sagan makes him sound like a god, but he was something even more great. Carl Sagan was a genuine, compassionate human being. He saw the big picture, even though it is too often clouded by politics and special interests, as what it was; our collective, solitary home among the vast cosmos. Our home has problems that must be addressed and these problems will continue to grow without intervention. Sagan knew a curious, enlightened society could be a force for change.

I wish I had known Carl Sagan, knowing how he has touched the lives of those who encountered him. Neil deGrasse Tyson has had enormous shoes to fill by assuming the role of navigator through the Cosmos. It is our turn to do our part as science communicators to ensure Sagan’s legacy rekindled is not in vain.

Mother Nature’s Chuckle: The Language of the Universe is not English

Miraculous opportunity for self-reflection.

 

There it is. Our home. To us it seems like such a huge place where we will never meet all our neighbors. A place where we live our daily lives consumed with news and opinions from all directions. We work. We play. We do silly stuff like fight wars or think we are the best at this sport or that.

Now look at the picture. Could you spot ‘us’ without the circle? As the dominant species on our planet, we think we are on top. We can explore our Moon. We can travel to our neighbor planet with robots. It is said the human brain is the most complex piece of matter in the known universe.

All Mother Nature can do is chuckle.

As the above image easily shows, it is all about perspective. Our grandeur is self-inflated. Despite the best efforts and actions of us on Earth, Mother Nature will always have the upper hand. She gives us room to explore. She allows us to make strides, great and small. But inevitably, she always reminds us we can not walk confidently on our journey. Stellar threats are all around; invisible until the time of their death in our black or blue sky. Prehistoric mass extinctions to modern day injuries and destruction in Russia last year.

Mother Nature does not speak any of our earthly language. She only speaks the language of the universe. The language we wish to learn through our research and study. The language we long to understand for it will tell us our true history…from the beginning.

On this International Women’s Day, remember, we are all very important to ourselves. However, our great Mother still laughs at us.

 

 

 

Living at the Boiling Point: What we can learn from extreme heat-loving microbes

Thanks to the decreasing costs of sequencing genomic DNA, finding novel microorganisms that add to our understanding of metabolism in myriad environments is becoming common place. Not only are we learning about the diversity of life in extreme environments, like heat, cold, pressure, and altitude, but we are also learning what life on other planets may be like. With each additional genome added into ‘the cloud’, our synthetic biology toolbox gets a little bit bigger and our ability to manipulate tiny organisms to produce novel compounds is possible. Enter the “rushing fireball”.

Pyrococcus furiosus is an archeal species that thrives near deep-sea thermal vents where temperatures are between 90 and 100 degrees Celsius (or 194 to 212 degrees F). P. furiosus can grow at temperatures as low as 70 degrees C (158 deg F). To live in such conditions, this organism’s proteins must be tolerant to what we would consider harsh conditions. This organism’s ambient conditions makes wild-type proteins well-suited for industrial processes where temperatures are near boiling.

So far, P. furiosus has been utilized to produce 3-hydroxypropionic acid, a common industrial chemical used to make various products including acrylics. The kicker is that these cells were wired to make this chemical from atmospheric carbon dioxide. It is not crazy to think of what other useful products can be produced by P. furiosus with small modifications within the genome; products like ethanol or butanol as biofuels.

Pyrococcus furiosus, bacteria, archea, illustration, microbiology
My illustration of Pyrococcus furiosus

Reference

Keller, M., Schut, G. J., Lipscomb, G. L., Menon, A., Iwuchukwu, I., Leuko, T., Thorgersen, M. P., Nixon, W. J., Hawkins, A., Kelly, R. M. and Adams, M. W. W. (2013) “Exploiting microbial hyperthermophilicity to produce an industrial chemical using hydrogen and carbon dioxide”Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. (in press).

Infographic: I’m glad we don’t have as much impact on the atmosphere as bacteria

As humans, we are contributing to global warming every time we breathe. Luckily, this contribution doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. The amount of carbon dioxide we excrete while breathing is easily converted to other molecules by other organisms on Earth. We, as humans, number roughly 7 billion. That is a lot of carbon dioxide. However, we are outnumbered by plants and trees by several orders of magnitude that consume this carbon dioxide and convert it back to the oxygen we so desperately need and make carbohydrates in the process.

Now, think about this: 7 billion humans converted to microbes living in the soil would amount to a pinch of soil. As you should know, there is much more than a pinch of soil on the planet, and that does not take into account the waters of Earth. So, doesn’t it make sense that what these microbes take in and “breathe” out has a much much greater impact on the composition of our atmosphere? Luckily, microbes, in the general sense, don’t breathe carbon dioxide under most conditions and some microbes like algae consume carbon dioxide like plants and give us oxygen in return.

bacteria, climate change
Affect of each domain of life on the composition of the atmosphere.

The figure above shows how simplistic plants and animals are compared to prokaryotes in regards to what we all “breathe”. This is not an exhaustive list of molecules microbes use; it’s just one small group of bacteria from the genus Geobacter. This complexity helps put things in perspective.