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Archive for the ‘Science & Technology’ Category

The Best American Science Writing

Best American Science WritingI just got word that The Best American Science Writing 2009 — which includes a piece I wrote for Popular Science called The Anonymity Experiment — just became available on Amazon. Check it out.

Rebooting the Immune System

A sign rests on the windowsill in the office of Jeffrey Bluestone, director of the Immune Tolerance Network and the Diabetes Center at the University of California at San Francisco. Measuring nearly three feet across, it reads “Club Bluestone” in pink and blue neon. It’s the sort of artifact you’d expect to find in a bar. But Bluestone is a world-renowned immunobiologist; his father-in-law had the sign made for him in the late 1980s when Bluestone was working long hours in his lab at the University of Chicago. As the night wore on and their energy faded, he and his colleagues would turn out the lights, turn on the sign and, propelled by the power of Bruce Springsteen, push forward with their research. “It was our version of partying,” he says.

As you may already know, auto-immune diseases like Type 1 diabetes or multiple sclerosis occur when your immune system malfunctions and mistakes part of your own body for a foreign invader. In the case of Type 1, it’s when your body decides to kill off the cells that produce insulin, a hormone necessary to absorb the energy in your food. I think I speak for all Type 1 diabetics when I say that destroying these cells is not the body’s smartest move.

I was lucky enough to participate in a trial for a promising new drug — created by the aforementioned Jeffrey Bluestone — that attempted to stop my system from killing off the rest of my insulin-producing cells. What’s more, I recently got a chance to write about this drug — and others like it — for Popular Science. The article’s called “Rebooting the Body.” Here’s a link to a digital copy.

I also got a chance to speak about the piece on the New Hampshire Public Radio Show, Word of Mouth. You can listen to the interview here.

The Sludge Report

phpthumb_generated_thumbnailjpgIf you want to avoid having conversations about your work, I highly recommend telling people that you’re writing a three-part series about sewage sludge. It tends to shut them up quick. Thankfully, though, my personal sludge hell is reaching an end: The series was just published on Grist.

Part one explains current uses of sewage sludge, and the rebranding effort it took to get there:

“The renaming contest [for sludge] received over 250 entries, many of which suggested that even water quality professionals still enjoy a good poop joke. Submissions included “bioslurp,” “black gold,” “sca-doo,” “hu-doo,” “geoslime,” and “the end product”; one person proposed rebranding sludge as “R.O.S.E.” (“Recycling Of Solids Environmentally”). Critics asked whether a rose by any other name would still smell as bad, and in 1991 WEF settled on “biosolids,” a term that Sheldon Rampton, co-author of Toxic Sludge Is Good For You, suggests “must have been chosen precisely because it evokes absolutely nothing in the minds of people who hear it.”

Part two is about turning poop into gold — or, more specifically, figuring out ways to recycle it into a marketable commodity. (Though, actually, there’s a sewage treatment plant in Japan that is literally mining gold out of crap — I kid you not.)

And part three is about shitting in a bucket. Or, more precisely, composting toilets.

The research for this series was provided by a Middlebury Fellowship in Environmental Reporting.

The Anonymity Experiment

In 2006, David Holtzman decided to do an experiment. Holtzman, a security consultant and former intelligence analyst, was working on a book about privacy, and he wanted to see how much he could find out about himself from sources available to any tenacious stalker. So he did background checks. He pulled his credit file. He looked at Amazon.com transactions and his credit-card and telephone bills. He got his DNA analyzed and kept a log of all the people he called and e-mailed, along with the Web sites he visited. When he put the information together, he was able to discover so much about himself—from detailed financial information to the fact that he was circumcised—that his publisher, concerned about his privacy, didn’t let him include it all in the book.

I spent a week trying to live as anonymously as possible and reported on the results in Popular Science. The experiment was hell, but it was worth it: the piece was recently selected for The Best American Science Writing 2009 (HarperCollins). 

I was also invited to participate in a podcast on the topic.

Something Fishy

Oct. 17, 2006 | I can’t say I’ve ever eaten yogurt fortified with microencapsulated fish fat before, but hell, there’s a first time for everything. I’m in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, and Ian Lucas, executive vice president of global marketing at a marine research company called Ocean Nutrition, has just handed me a spoon. The yogurt sitting between us is flecked with peach, but it also contains a surprise: powdered oil from smushed anchovies, encapsulated in pork gelatin. You might say it’s surf and turf in a cup. It’s also just one of a slew of newly developed food products that have been fortified with omega-3 fatty acids.

With the yogurt still in front of me, Lucas pours a large, cold glass of fish-oil fortified milk as I rip open a bag of omega-3 tortilla wraps — all products that contain what’s referred to in industry circles as designer lipids. Food technologists working the world over have been busy figuring out how to shrink fish oil capsules to microscopic size and bake them into bagels. Entire companies have devoted themselves to breeding algae laden with omega-3, which can be dried into flakes and used as animal feed, or sprayed as powder and used in food products. There are already omega-3-fortified eggs and infant formulas on the market (not to mention margarine, gummy candies, orange juice, fruit chews, nutrition bars, chocolate, bread, pizza crust and, yes, yogurt) — and eventually there will be omega-3-fortified cake. There will be cookies. There will be omega-3 ice creams and cheeses. Research has even begun on omega-3 pâté.

I’ll admit it: I went through a year of my life where I was obsessed with omega-3 fatty acids. Luckily for me, Salon shared the love.

Your Body, Explained

For Parade Magazine, I tackle some hard-hitting questions, like what ear wax is, and whether mosquitoes truly like some people better.

Stress

Here’s the ironic thing about stress: The human body has evolved to cope with it too effectively. When you suffer under a crappy boss—a stressful situation, sure, but hardly life-threatening—your body responds as if you’re being chased by a predator. Stress hormones like cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine spike, causing your attention to narrow and your body’s inflammatory reactions to kick into high gear. This would help you avoid infection if, say, your boss bit you, but when continuously activated, inflammatory reactions can wreak havoc on your health, leading to increased risk of heart disease, stroke, depression, and diabetes. Chronic stress can even shrink your hippocampus, a part of the brain that supports learning and memory. In short: You need to calm down.

It is probably a bad sign that I completely forgot to post this piece I did for Outside Magazine about ways to beat stress.

Flying the Coal-Powered Skies

In the not-so-distant future, cars could run on electricity, power plants on wind and solar energy, and city buses on zero-emission hydrogen fuel cells. But airplanes? Those just might run on coal.

Yes, coal. The U.S. Air Force wants to create a synthetic-fuel industry that, unless something better comes along, will mine America’s massive coal supply (we have more than a quarter of the world’s known reserves) and turn it into enough jet fuel for half its domestic operations to run on a 50/50 blend of synthetic and regular fuel by 2016. By the Air Force’s logic, it has no choice. It uses more fuel than all the other branches of the military combined, burning through 2.5 billion gallons of the stuff in 2007 alone—10 percent of the total used by the entire domestic-aviation fuel market—at a cost of $5.6 billion. And although oil prices have dropped in recent months, no one expects the relief to last indefinitely.
Yet alternative fuels for aviation are hard to come by. The Air Force says it’s open to all sources of power for its fleet, but according to former assistant secretary of the Air Force William Anderson, petroleum, natural gas and coal are our only current options—and when you look at the U.S.’s resources, the choice is clear. “We’re not the largest holder of oil reserves, so that’s not a good option,” he says. “We’re not the biggest holder of natural gas. But we are the Saudi Arabia of coal.”

For Popular Science, I investigated the Air Force’s plan to launch a domestic industry for coal-derived jet fuel.

Volitan: The Sun-Powered Sailboat

I wrote an article for Popular Science about a Turkish sailboat powered not just by wind, but by sun. A teaser for the nautically inclined:

A desire to make boating clean again inspired Hakan Gürsu and Sözüm Dogan of the Turkish design firm Designnobis to envision a zero-emission, engine-assisted boat that didn’t burn a drop of fuel—and was swank enough for the yachting set. Their solution is Volitan, a 105-foot concept sailboat powered by nothing but sun and wind. The ship’s strong, lightweight body is made from a composite of carbon fiber and epoxy resin and covered in carbon-foam lamination. Its two solid, solar-panel-covered sails, which extend from the ship’s body like wings (the boat is named after a flying fish found in the Mediterranean), catch wind when the sailing is good, and deliver electricity to the two 200-horsepower electric motors that propel the ship when the wind won’t cooperate. Controlled by an onboard computer, the wings rotate and tilt to track both the sun and wind. The energy they harvest is stored in conventional marine batteries that sit at the bottom of the boat’s centerboard and act as ballast.

The Great Awakening

For Outside Magazine, I spent a night in a strip mall in Fremont with a bunch of electrodes attached to my head, doing a sleep evaluation. I can’t say it was the best night I ever had, but it made me even more obsessed with my eight hours a day than I was before. And believe me when I say that I take my sleep seriously.

As little as 20 hours without sleep leaves you with the same impaired attention and slow reflexes of someone who is legally drunk. Chris Eatough, six-time winner of the World Solo 24 Hours of Adrenaline Championship mountain-bike race, says that during a day-long competition, his vision will occasionally stop. “I’ll be flying downhill with rocks and trees to dodge,” he says, “and I’ll get a snapshot of the trail that doesn’t change for four or five seconds.”

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