Science Conferences: Presentations vs. Discussions

I recently attended a very useful scientific conference and workshop on a specific area of solar energy – a process known as singlet fission. I won’t go into details about the science here, but it’s a way of potentially harnessing the extra energy that is normally wasted in normal photovoltaics and if successful could significant raise the efficiency of solar devices.

There were some fantastic presentations with interesting results presented throughout the few days of presentations, and I came away feeling excited to think about and try out some new ideas. On the other hand I also came away incredibly frustrated – with all these incredibly smart people in the room we never had a chance to really sit down and talk about and digest all of these presentations. I wanted to be a fly on the wall for every conversation that researchers had at the poster session and try and tease out what all the professors were thinking of and talking about with their colleagues. But why can’t we make this happen?

This popcorn represents what could happen if a brainstorming session between scientists… ok it’s a stretch. I just wanted to use this somewhere.

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Brainstorm: Publishing Science in the Digital Era

There’s been a rising swell of anger against certain scientific journals’ publishing practices in the research community. While I will not repost all the arguments here, one thing that keeps popping up is the realization that publishers are stuck in the print-age mindset. Over the last decade or so we’ve seen amazing advances in global communications via the internet and mobile devices. Publishers however appear weary to try anything new – if it ain’t broke don’t fix it right?

I say wrong. To borrow a term from FakeElsevier, the publisher’s one job is to disseminate scientific results to the scientific community and the world at large. If modern societies are now communicating in new and different ways through the internet and the publishers think that printing physical journals is still going to be critical  in the near future, those publishers are going to be left behind.

To be fair, publishers have put a large amount of effort into digitizing all of their previous journals and making them available online in pdf form. While this is great for older papers, the publishers are still in the mental mindset of a print journal. Yes, new papers get put up online ASAP, but again it’s just a pre-print pdf of what will be in the physical journal. This doesn’t take advantage of all the tools available online and makes it seem tacked-on.

So, here’s a few ideas of what could be if publishers decided to seriously pursue all the tools online publishing offers: Continue reading

The Ice Man

Digging for historical climactic clues buried deep in ice, scientists are trying to determine how much time coastal cities have before rising sea levels render them uninhabitable.

Experts previously thought that Greenland’s ice sheet was the major source of water causing increased sea levels in the Earth’s warmer past. However, information locked in cores of ice drilled from Greenland’s ice sheet indicates that this is not true, according to James White, director of the University of Colorado’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research. These preliminary results have important implications for predicting the timing and severity of future sea level rise on those living in at-risk areas.

“Miami doesn’t have a future beyond the end of this century” White warns. By that time, sea level is expected to rise by at least one meter sea, which would put Miami underwater. “The big question is: how fast are we going to get there?”

NEEM Ice core. Photo: NEEM ice core drilling project,

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Space Weather – It’s Weather… in Space!

I apologize for the lack of science blogging around here, I’ve been busy with my science journalism class! I figured I can at least make up for that by putting my articles up here which you may find interesting. Here’s one I wrote after a field trip (how awesome are field trips?) to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Space Weather Prediction center here in Boulder.

Space Weather – And You!

Coronal Mass Ejection - Boom! Source: NASA

On November 3rdmassive sunspots, some more than 17 times the size of the earth, spewed a dangerous combination of radiation, magnetic fields, and charged particles out into space. Luckily, this discharge from the Sun was not aimed towards Earth – this time.

These solar events, called Coronal Mass Ejections, or (CMEs), – can disrupt electronic, communication, and navigation systems that modern society relies upon. Luckily, scientists with The Space Weather Prediction Center monitor this ‘space weather’ to give us enough time to prepare. Part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Boulder, Colorado, the center focuses on monitoring the sun and predicting when major events like the November 3rd eruption will affect Earth.

“We dodged a bullet,” remarked Joe Kunches, a space scientist at the center. “There was a big coronal mass ejection but because it was on the edge of the sun it was no problem to us.”

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Scientists – Talking the Talk


Scientists have probably explained this joke poorly

One of the basic tenets of science journalism is that a more informed public will make better decisions. While scientists are doing a stellar job – if I may say so as a scientists myself – performing the necessary research, there are still barriers that prevent common understanding of what the scientists are finding out.

I recently came across this article at Physics Today entitled “Communicating the Science of Climate Change” part of which addresses this problem in terms of the common language used by scientists to communicate their results. Part of the problem is that scientists typically use words that are not in the common vernacular to describe their results when sometimes a clearer substitute could be used. From the article:

Scientists tend to speak in code. We encourage them to speak in plain language and choose their words with care. Many words that seem perfectly normal to scientists are incomprehensible jargon to the wider world. And there are usually simpler substitutes. Rather than “anthropogenic,” scientists can say “human-caused.” Instead of “spatial” and “temporal,” they could say “space” and “time.”

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Science Journalism

Fourmile fire burns in 2010. Source: DailyCamera

I’ve been taking a Science Journalism course this semester – which is partly why I’ve been writing less here on the blog. However, the class has be extremely informative in terms of focusing my writing and getting me to focus on the important details. So, here’s one of the pieces I wrote after visiting a local hydrologist examining the effects of the Fourmile fire on the local water supply. Not my usual topic but I thought you all might find it interesting in the meantime. Let me know what you think!

Here’s some background info on the Fourmile fire.

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Why Niels Bohr is Cooler Than You

As it’s Nobel Prize time for 2011, I thought I would tell you all why Niels Bohr is one of the most bad-ass of all Nobel Prize winners.

It is highly unlikely you will ever be as cool as Niels Bohr. Image: Benjamin Arthur for NPR. Sunglasses added for extra-cool effect.

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Comic Sans Science Rage

Edit: If you’re interested in alternative fonts that look nice try:

The hatred of Comic Sans is well documented elsewhere. Today I am going to inform you all of the special science rage I get whenever I see Comic Sans used in any sort of professional science setting.

Last month I went to the American Chemical Society’s fall meeting in Denver, CO. I learned a great deal, some some amazing presentations, some meh presentations, and then some gouge-my-eyes-out-with-a-pipette awful presentations. I also saw way, waaay, waaaaaaaaaay too many presentations using the infamous Comic Sans font. Even just walking by doors to other sessions I spied nearly 1 out of every 4 presentations as using Comic Sans in some way.

Now let me put it to you straight. Every font has its appropriate uses – even Comic Sans. Say for instance you’re making an invitation to your three year old son’s birthday party. Comic Sans is probably fine. Maybe you’re making a flyer for puppies that are up for adoption. Also a fine use of Comic Sans.

But if you are going to give a professional scientific presentation in front of your peers from across the country where you want to impress them and show them what kind of researcher you are and how awesome your results are – Comic Sans is not the font you want to use. It makes you look like you have no clue as to what you’re doing. And you do want to impress these people – they could be future bosses or people who you want to do a collaboration with or maybe even will be on the reviewing committee for your next big grant proposal to the NSF.

It’s not just graduate students and post docs making this egregious error –  big name researchers do it all the freaking time (*cough Dan Nocera cough*). 

Some people will say “hey, maybe I like comic sans!” and to them I will say that I like cute pictures of kittens as well but I wouldn’t put them in my science presentation.

I made a helpful comic to show you the difference. Enjoy. (Click to embiggen)

Your Cookies are Worth a Billion Dollars

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for
Edit: Editor’s Selection on ResearchBlogging!

Stop eating your cookie right now – put it down on the desk and save it. There are enough carbon atoms in it to make it worth more than your rapidly dwindling retirement account. In fact there are enough carbon atoms around you right now that – properly rearranged – to make you rich enough to retire immediately! Am I talking about transmuting carbon into gold? No – just rearranging them to make graphene! I’ve written briefly about graphene here before, and its wide variety of interesting properties and uses – so interesting that its discoverers were awarded the Nobel prize in physics last year. High quality graphene in bulk quantities is still fairly expensive to produce – until now that is.

This equation is 100% accurate.

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My Cool Laser

Using a laser has it’s ups and downs. On one hand: lasers! Pew Pew! On the other hand, you discover anew how many different and interesting ways a laser can get really f-ed up.

For instance, here is a picture of a titanium doped sapphire crystal which is used in amplification of the laser that I am using. Looks pretty good you say. I would agree.

Normal titanium doped sapphire laser crystal

Now examine this next picture carefully and see if you can spot the difference between it and the first picture:

Same laser crystal, but something is not quite right...

For all those who noticed that the crystal and its housing are now encased in a thick layer of frost and ice, congratulations! You’ve earned a cookie! As you can guess, the laser does not work quite right when the crystal is in such a state. When the laser won’t turn on and I open it up to see this, I bet you can hear “FFFFFFFFFUUUUUUUUUUUU…” from all the way across campus.

WTF is Going On?

“Wait just a sec” you’re saying. “I thought lasers were hot and produced lots of energy. That crystal must be pretty warm when it is running,” and you’d be entirely correct! In order to get rid of the excess heat and keep the crystal at a constant temperature while lasing, the crystal is surrounded by a peltier cooler. Basically a voltage is applied to a special type of material that can efficiently create a temperature difference between different sides of the peltier. In this case the peltier moves heat away from the crystal and dumps it into the water which is cycling through the crystal housing (you can see the water tubes in the pictures above).

Here’s the issue – the peltier is programmed to maintain the crystal at a certain temperature. The red wire coming up from the bottom in the picture is actually a probe for a digital thermometer. That thermometer probe is attached to the crystal housing via an extremely high tech piece of thermal tape. Sometimes the tape gets loose and the thermometer probe is not in contact with the crystal housing anymore. When this happens the peltier thinks “uh oh, the crystal is hot!” and applies a voltage to cool it down. However, because the probe is just measuring room temperature instead of the crystal, the peltier has no way of knowing when to stop cooling. So it just happily keeps applying a voltage, continually cooling the crystal, oblivious to the fact that the crystal is now so cold that it is condensing and freezing water right out of the air!

Luckly the fix is pretty easy – spray the whole thing down with methanol and stick the tape back on! Unfortunately this means I now have a days worth (or more) of re-alignment of the laser to do. Yay science!