Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Johnald's Fantastical Daily Link Splurge

Johnald's Fantastical Daily Link Splurge

Blue Whale Song Mystery Baffles Scientists

Posted: 02 Dec 2009 11:02 AM PST


All around the world, blue whales aren't singing like they used to, and scientists have no idea why.

Every year, the largest animals on Earth are singing in ever-deeper voices. Among the suggested explanations are ocean noise pollution, changing population dynamics and new mating strategies. But none of them is entirely convincing.

"We don't have the answer. We just have a lot of recordings," said Mark McDonald, president of Whale Acoustics, a company that specializes in the sonic monitoring of cetaceans.

McDonald and his collaborators first noticed the change eight years ago, when they kept needing to recalibrate the automated song detectors used to track blue whales off the west coast of California. The detectors are triggered by songs that match a particular waveform, and every year, McDonald had to set them lower.

Since then, he and Scripps Institution of Oceanography researchers Sarah Melnick and John Hildebrand have gathered thousands of blue whale recordings made since the 1960s, spanning populations from the North Atlantic to the South Pacific to the East Indian Ocean. Their analysis, published in October in Endangered Species Research, shows that the songs' tonal frequency is falling every year by a few fractions of a hertz.

"It's a fascinating finding," said John Calombokidis, a blue whale expert at the Cascadia Research Collective. "It's even more remarkable, given that the songs themselves differ in different oceans. There seem to be these distinct populations, yet they're all showing this common shift."

bluewhalesongsAccording to McDonald, the first explanation to come to mind involved noise pollution caused by increased shipping traffic. Ambient ocean noise has increased by more than 12 decibels since the mid-20th century. But if whales were trying to be heard above the din, they'd sing at higher rather than lower pitches, said McDonald.

It's also possible the whales are responding to changing dynamics in how sound travels through water that's become warmer as Earth heats up, absorbing more carbon dioxide and growing more acidic than before. "But those factors are so small, and this is such a

huge shift in frequency," said McDonald.

Another explanation involves the recovery of blue whale populations, which were nearly hunted to extinction during the first half of the last century. It's only since hunting ceased that they've been recorded. Maybe songs were higher-pitched when recording started, because the whales had to sing extra-loud in order to reach their scattered brethren. Now that there are more, they can lower their voices.

But even in populations that escaped the carnage relatively unscathed, where population densities have remained steady, songs are getting lower.

"That's the first place to look for an answer, but it doesn't fit more localized patterns. The population of blue whales off the U.S. west coast hasn't shown a dramatic upwards trend in numbers, but its pitch is declining," said Calombokidis.

Those whales are the best-studied of all blue whale populations, and their song pitch has dropped by 31 percent since the late 1960s.

Because only male blue whales sing, the answer may involve mate choice and sexual selection. The researchers hypothesize that as larger, ostensibly more virile whales tend to produce deeper songs, males may be trying to emulate them, just as human males might lower their voices when trying to impress a woman.

That the largest animals in the world could feel the need to inflate their size is an appealing idea, but Calombokidis warned that very little is known about how blue whales use their songs, or how social dynamics could affect them. "We need a better understanding of the songs, and a better understanding of their reproductive habits," he said.

Hal Whitehead, a Dalhousie University biologist who specializes in cetacean communication, emphasized that whale song is a cultural affair. Humpback whales are known to learn from each other, and whales have extraordinarily large and complex brains. They appear to share many social and cognitive traits with people.

"The exciting possibility, I think, is that they're all listening to each other," said Whitehead. "This is a worldwide cultural phenomenon, and that's very cool."

Images: 1) NOAA. 2) Mark McDonald. 2) Historical graph of song frequencies/ Endangered Species Research.

Listen to a blue whale song.


See Also:

Citation: "Worldwide decline in tonal frequencies of blue whale songs." By Mark A. McDonald, John A. Hildebrand, Sarah Mesnick. Endangered Species Research Vol. 9 No. 1, published online October 23, 2009.

Brandon Keim's Twitter stream and reportorial outtakes; Wired Science on Twitter. Brandon is currently working on a book about ecosystem and planetary tipping points.

Google May Build Green-Tech Power Plants

Posted: 02 Dec 2009 07:42 AM PST


SAN FRANCISCO — Google will become directly involved in deploying energy technologies, the company's director of climate initiatives said Monday.

The company has long supported and invested in renewable energy but kept its participation to greening its campus and funding several solar, wind and geothermal companies. In September, Google announced it was internally developing a new mirror for solar thermal plants. Now, the company may wade even further into the energy sector.

"We'll make a step soon into energy projects," Dan Reicher, director of climate change and energy initiatives at Google, told a group of energy experts assembled in the cafeteria at the company's swanky San Francisco office.

That could mean Google starts directly financing power plants. Throughout the energy innovation event, which also featured energy leaders from Stanford, MIT and UC Berkeley, Reicher stressed the importance of going beyond just research and development to deploying innovative energy technologies.

"Energy innovation to me means a real pipeline that goes from basic research to applied research to demonstration projects to the scale up and from there to full commercial deployment," Reicher said. "It's a long pipeline and to be honest we don't do a very good job of moving technologies through this pipeline."

Reicher said the Googlers have even coined a clever phrase to describe their vision of energy policy: "from light bulb to light bulb." They want to help move new technologies from the idea (the first light bulb) to the product (the second light bulb).

He championed an idea bouncing around Congress to create a Clean Energy Deployment Administration, which would help green tech companies get large power plants built.

But with a ballooning federal deficit and rough economy, it's hard to know where the money will come from. Reicher and the other panelists agreed that energy R&D funding should be around $15 billion a year.

MIT physicist Ernie Moniz warned several times that the current increase in energy research came courtesy of the stimulus bill, which won't be around forever.

"We're going to have to see what happens after these next two years because what we need is not a drop but a further increase in RD&D funding commensurate with the task at hand," Moniz said.

One idea for raising funds is to shift it from other places within government through standard appropriations, but Moniz suggested a different kind of funding base. A small charge could be added to electricity usage, which would add up to a very large sum — the Office Space funding model.

Charging about four-tenths of a cent per kilowatt on the 3,669,919 million kilowatt hours of electricity used in the United States would yield the $15 billion dollars the energy researchers want. That would essentially be a 5 percent tax on the average cost of a kilowatt hour.

Moniz said the idea had worked before. A successful program taxed natural gas transmission across state lines to fund the non-profit Gas Research Institute, beginning in 1976.

Image: A mirror being placed at Brightsource's Israeli demonstration facility. Google has invested in Brightsource and other solar thermal players like eSolar.

See Also:

WiSci 2.0: Alexis Madrigal's Twitter, Google Reader feed, and green tech history research site; Wired Science on Twitter and Facebook.

Strange Triangular Snowflakes Explained

Posted: 02 Dec 2009 07:33 AM PST


Flurries of questions about mysterious triangle-shaped snowflakes may soon subside, thanks to new research on snowflake formation. Most snowflakes are hexagons because of the arrangement of hydrogen bonds in the water molecule. But the new study, appearing online at ( and in an upcoming issue of The Microscope, suggests that after hexagonal flakes, oddball triangular flakes are the most prevalent.

sciencenewsStudy coauthors Kenneth Libbrecht and Hannah Arnold of Caltech in Pasadena propose an aeronautical reason for the triangular geometry. The results help solve the very old puzzle of how the unexpected flakes form, Libbrecht says.

Snowflake enthusiasts — such as Libbrecht, who photographs snowflakes — have spotted triangular snowflakes in the wild. The snowflake scientific literature, which goes back almost two centuries, is thick with such sightings, Libbrecht adds, but no one has explained why. "People have noticed them for hundreds of years."

To address the mystery, the researchers created snowflakes in the laboratory and recorded the shapes. In conditions that simulate natural snowfall, the vast majority of flakes were the standard hexagons, but more of them were triangular than a statistical model had predicted, the team found. Some of these flakes still have six sides but an overall triangular shape, created by three short edges and three long ones. The abundance of triangle-shaped flakes suggests that they may be more common in nature than chance alone would allow.

Tiny impurities, such as dust particles, can cause one edge of the falling snowflake to tilt up as it falls, Libbrecht says. The snowflake sides that are pointed down grow faster as the wind blows by, leading to a stable triangular pattern. Once a triangle shape gets started, the snowflake remains triangular despite any later bumps as it falls, the researchers propose.

Image: Kenneth Libbrecht

Ground-Breaking Science: Very Old Papers Are Both Awesome and Hilarious

Posted: 01 Dec 2009 12:28 PM PST


Can one species be transmuted into another just by swapping their blood? What are those funny little things swimming in my water? Did this Einstein guy get his math right?

Those are a few of the questions addressed in a trove of history-making papers published by the United Kingdom's Royal Society and released in their entirety to celebrate the 350th birthday of the world's oldest scientific body.

The 60 papers are a testament to human curiosity, and the power of ingenuity and rigorous observation to overcome ignorance. Here's a few of Wired Science's favorites:

1666: "Tryals Proposed by Mr. Boyle to Dr. Lower, to be Made by Him, for the Improvement of Transfusing Blood out of One Live Animal into Another"
In this grisly opener to the inaugural issue of Philosophical Transactions, doctor Richard Lower suggested that the nature of organismal character might be revealed by swapping blood between dogs. He wondered if "a fierce Dog, by being often quite new stocked with the blood of a cowardly Dog, may not become more tame," and whether "a Dog, replenisht with adventitious blood, he will know and fawn upon his Master; and do like customary things as before?" The answer, unsurprisingly, was no.

1671: "A Letter of Mr. Isaac Newton, Professor of the Mathematicks in the University of Cambridge; Containing His New Theory about Light and Colors"
In one of the most famous experiments ever, Newton used a glass prism to spread a beam of light into a rainbow spectrum, demonstrating that colors were a property of light's refraction. Not mentioned, however, is Newton's earlier studies of light, in which he stuck a needle into his eye and recorded how colors changed as he pressed his retina into different shapes.

1677: "Observations, Communicated to the Publisher by Mr. Antony van Leewenhoeck, in a Dutch Letter of the 9th of Octob. 1676. Here English'd: concerning Little Animals by Him, Observed in Rain-Well-Sea. and Snow Water; as also in Water Wherein Pepper Had Lain Infused"
With new instruments of observation come discoveries; Leeuwenhoek, the father of microscopy, was the first person to see bacteria and protozoa (again and again and again, as the paper describes in painstaking detail.) To help his audience appreciate their size, he likened "the propotion of one of these small Water-creatures to a Cheese-mite, to be like that of a Bee to a Horse."

franklin1752: "A Letter of Benjamin Franklin, Esq; to Mr. Peter Collinson, F.R.S. concerning an Electrical Kite"
Franklin was already famed for showing how an iron rod atop a tall building would attract lightning, thus demonstrating that thunderbolts were electrical rather than supernatural in nature. Here Franklin describes a methodological trick that allowed the experiment to be "made in a different in more easy manner, which any one may try."

1822: "Account of an Assemblage of Fossil Teeth and Bones of Elephant, Rhinoceros, Hippopotamus, Bear, Tiger, and Hyaena, and Sixteen Other Animals; Discovered in a Cave at Kirkdate, Yorkshire, in the Year 1821: With a Comparative View of Five Similar Caverns in Various Parts of England, and Others on the Continent"
Reverend William Buckland believed in the Bible and Noah's tale. But he was also a geologist, and knew that layers of fossils contained in varying sedimentary layers couldn't have been deposited by a single deluge. Moreover, bones found in Yorkshire caves couldn't have been carried by floodwaters, but must have come from animals who lived in a time undescribed by literal readings of scripture. Buckland went on to describe the first dinosaur.

1920: "A Determination of the Deflection of Light by the Sun's Gravitational Field, from Observations Made at the Total Eclipse of May 29, 1919″
Before Einstein was a frizzy-haired icon of physics, he was an unknown amateur with a wild but intriguing theory about gravity, space and time. If it was true, then light should bend as it passed through the sun's gravitational field — and that's exactly what researchers watching a total solar eclipse found, thus propelling Einstein and his theory into the limelight.

continents1965: "The Fit of the Continents Around the Atlantic"
Even though man was about to walk on the moon, the idea that continents drifted across Earth's surface was still controversial. In this paper, Edward Bullard showed how neatly the continents fit together, from their shape to common properties of rocks and fossils. Plate tectonics is now widely accepted, and an instructive reminder of how human knowledge is continually under construction.

Images: The Royal Society. 1) The design of Newton's prism experiment. 2) Ben Franklin flying his kite in a thunderstorm. 3) Bullard's drawings of the fit between South America and Africa."

See Also:

Brandon Keim's Twitter stream and reportorial outtakes; Wired Science on Twitter. Brandon is currently working on a book about ecosystem and planetary tipping points.