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Do earthquakes swarm? April 12, 2008

Posted by eyegillian in environment, explore, learn, life, nature, science, world.
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Swarm of Bees poster by Malcolm Warrington

It’s not every day that you read about a “swarm” of earthquakes. Yet the story about a swarm of hundreds of earthquakes off the Oregon coast is all over the news this morning.

According to the Oxford dictionary, a swarm is a large number or dense group of insects, birds, small animals, persons, etc., moving about in a cluster; when referring to bees, it means to congregate in large numbers; when referring to a place: be overrun, be crowded, abound…

A word like “cluster” would have seemed more accurate to me. “Swarm” sounds like a negative term, a warning that Westcoasters are about to be overrun by a swarm of earthquakes.

And maybe they are. Geophysicists have reported 600 earthquakes in 10 days in a basin 320 kilometres southwest of Newport, near the Juan de Fuca fault. One quake was as big as magnitude 5.4.

More unusual, however, is the sound of these earthquakes. Scientists have been listening in on underwater life for 17 years, using hydrophones (underwater microphones) — placed by the navy to listen for submarines during the Cold War — and they’ve never heard anything like this. What do underwater earthquakes sound like? Thunder.

underwater volcanic vent

I’m wondering if the earthquakes are caused by a new hyperthermal vent system, like the one in the photo to the right.

A story earlier this year noted how a team of seismologists have been studying these vent systems, working under 2,500 meters of water on the East Pacific Rise, some 565 miles southwest of Acapulco, Mexico. They planted seismometers around an ocean ridge to record tiny, shallow earthquakes — in this study, 7,000 of them, over 7 months in 2003 and 2004.

The researchers interpret the quakes as the result of cold water passing through hot rocks and picking up their heat, a process that shrinks the rocks, and cracks them, creating the small quakes.

If these hyperthermal vents are the source, maybe the news reports should be referring to a “burp” or a “rumble” of earthquakes. I am tempted to use “explosion” of earthquakes, but I hope it doesn’t come to that.

Speaking of collective nouns, does anyone have a good suggestion for a group of bloggers? One suggestion here is a “waffle” of bloggers. Any other ideas?

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Related Links:
CBC: “Scientists baffled by unusual swarm of hundreds of quakes of the Oregon coast”
Science Daily: “Earthquakes under Pacific floor reveal unexpected circulatory system”
National Geographic: “Swarm Behaviour”
Collective Nouns


Imagining the world March 19, 2008

Posted by eyegillian in art, communication, creativity, diversity, explore, language, learn, life, science, technology.
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Twisted Conditions, ©2007 by Cesar Hidalgo

New discoveries are always the top of my news reading. Every explorer, scientist, and researcher is out to discover something, whether it’s an archeological “find”, a new biological species, or a technological advance.

Discovery is what makes science interesting for me, because I can continue to “discover” so many new things for myself. I’m particularly fascinated how innovation and imagination work together in the realm of science, not only in generating a hypothesis but also in providing the means to prove or disprove it. My own theory is that little would be discovered at all without imagination and its cousin curiosity.

I have no doubt that factors such as knowledge, discipline, training, persistence and painstaking tracking of detail — and heaps of previous failed experiments — make up 99% of the work of science. But it’s the accidents, the leaps of imagination, the long-hoped-for but unexpected breakthroughs that will be remembered.

Please Listen To Me, ©2006 by Zach Vitale

As a trained musician who has given piano lessons to students from age 5 to age 75, I am intrigued by the human ability to make a leap from the known to the unknown.

The inter-related skills of playing a musical instrument — note-reading, coordination of eye and hands, strengthening fingers and learning fine motor control, developing tactile memory, practicing patterns of movement, using hearing to provide corrective feedback, learning the mechanical abilities and limitations of the instrument, reproducing written notation in terms of time and volume — these skills can be learned by almost anybody.

But the difficult point for many students, especially the older ones, is learning how to trust these skills, to step back, as it were, from the complex task and just play. When all these skills come together under their creative control, when the person playing the piano can listen to the whole sound and “feel” the notes forming under their fingers, then music is the result.

When I taught piano lessons, I tried to describe this leap of trust in terms of driving a car. I remember my early lessons, my nervousness, and how I was paralyzed in the middle of a road once because I couldn’t figure out how to flick on my turning signal, apply the brake, check the mirror and turn the steering wheel all at the same time. Yet now I can do all these (and many more complex) tasks at once without thinking about more than the single act of “turning the car”.

Circuit Board Butterfly #16, ©2006 by Laura Hewitt

Imagination is important for me in almost every area of learning. When someone at work asks for help with a computer problem I have never seen before, I can often use my imagination to “intuit” the solution. When I have a difficult task or conversation ahead of me, I depend on my imagination to “visualize” a successful outcome. And when I plan my holidays (or daydream about being on holiday), I use my imagination to “picture” being in a wonderful environment. And I’m trying to use my imagination to leap that gap between my French lessons and the ability to think and speak in French, but I haven’t succeeded… yet!

Innovative thinking and imagination — the ability to see beyond a complex problem to an exciting solution — this is where science and the arts meet.

All images from the Digital ’07 Art Exhibition “Pattern Finding” organized by Art and Science Collaborations, Inc (ASCI).

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Related Links:
The Seed: “The future of science… is it art?”
NewScientist: “The art of science”
Art and Imagination
Art and science

On board for the Arctic March 17, 2008

Posted by eyegillian in arctic, Canada, environment, explore, global warming, nature, science, world.
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Amundsen in the Arctic

Concerns about climate change and interest in polar ecosystems go hand-in-hand in the Canadian Arctic, and this year, students, journalists and scientists around the world are participating in a global research program. The classroom is the Canadian Coast Guard Ship Amundsen, a scientific research icebreaker locked in the ice in the Beaufort Sea near Banks Island.

The CCGS Amundsen is hosting one of the largest IPY research projects being conducted in the Canadian Arctic during International Polar Year (2007-2008): the Circumpolar Flaw Lead (CFL) system study. The $40-million project is examining the circumpolar flaw lead system — areas of open water in the ice — which is expected to show how the Arctic might change as the global climate grows warmer.

What makes this project unique is that, not only does it involve more than 200 scientists from 15 different countries, but also high school students, teachers, and Inuit youth leaders from Canada, Norway, Sweden, Scotland, England, Germany, Spain, China, Russia, and Greenland. The students and teachers have the opportunity to board the icebreaker and participate in an experiential science education program aimed at introducing them to the scientific and indigenous knowledge related to climate change research in the Arctic.

I first heard about the Schools on Board program from a blog written by Emily Chung, the CBC.ca’s regional journalist for Ottawa. She is one of 15 journalists from around the world selected and sponsored by the World Federation of Science Journalists invited to spend seven days on the Amundsen. Her trip is finished, but another group will be joining the Amundsen from April 12 – 27, 2008. A final program, designed for Inuit and Indigenous students and educators, will run from July 15 – 27, 2008.

Schools on Board is an outreach program of Arctic marine science and research, based out of the Faculty of Environment at the University of Manitoba (Winnipeg, Canada). It was developed to bridge Arctic research with science education in high schools across Canada; to increase awareness of issues related to climate change in Canada, and to excite young Canadians about the challenges and career opportunities of Arctic research. The main thrust of the program is the Field Program “on board” the CCGS Amundsen.

Programming “onboard” includes presentations, group projects, lab activities, fieldwork, and lectures with graduate students and scientists. Students are introduced to subjects such as: oceanography, physical geography, biology, chemistry, meteorology, zoology, geology, and climatology.

The educational program also introduces participants to “two ways of knowing” – the traditional and scientific approaches to understanding the complexities and interconnectedness of the Arctic environment. Each trip includes at least one northern community visit to introduce participants to northern culture and knowledge.

This program is a wonderful example of international cooperation between Canada and our northern neighbours. Let’s hope this trend continues as the Arctic region ecosystem faces increased warming as part of climate change, and the circumpolar countries face increased pressure for access to traffic and resource extraction.

Schools on board logo

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Related Links:
Schools on Board
Arctic Climate Change: CFL study

CBC: “Aboard the Amundsen”

CCGS Amundsen

CBC: “The Big Melt”

The memory game March 14, 2008

Posted by eyegillian in change, communication, internet, language, learn, life, science, technology.
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working memoryI experienced a mind slip the other day. During a casual conversation with another attendee at a recent event, I learned that she and I had a mutual acquaintance. I asked her name, checked the spelling, then said her full name again to make sure I had remembered it correctly. Then we spoke about other subjects for a few minutes, and I left the meeting. As I walked away, I searched my memory and her name had completely slipped my mind.

My friends would laugh and say that I just had a senior moment, but I don’t think it’s a sign of early dementia. And I did all the “right” things except actually write down the woman’s name: I said her full name twice, I looked at her face, and I was focusing fully on the conversation. I know how easy it is to not remember what’s being said to me when my mind is somewhere else (just ask my partner!), but how could this detail slip away so quickly?

I wonder if the problem is with my short-term memory. When I was growing up, my mother drilled us so much on the details of our day — who we talked to, what we learned in school, etc — that I learned to be good at observing and remembering detail. And then there was that memory game we always played at parties where someone would bring out a tray of household items and everyone would study it for five minutes, then it would disappear again and we had to list every item. That was one of my mother’s favourite games.

But my memory is getting a lot less exercise these days. So much of the short-term function is now filled by machines: my database of names, phone numbers, tasks and appointments is synced between my cellphone and my computers at work and home. I don’t have to remember information any more; I just have to look it up.

A recent study of 3,000 school children in Great Britain discovered a loss in “working memory” in 10% of the pupils. Working memory involves such things as remembering verbal instructions, new names or telephone numbers. The process of remembering things for a short period of time is fundamental to our experience of the world and is linked to many higher brain functions.

The researchers said that teachers rarely identify this problem, tending to label pupils as being unmotivated daydreamers. Yet if the finding of 10% of children having the problem held true for all children, then almost 500,000 in primary education alone would be affected.

I don’t know if the researchers identified a cause, but it makes me wonder whether technology is partly to blame. During a discussion this week on CBC radio about how technology has changed the way we remember, one of the interviewees was describing how he is constantly “googling” information during conversations with his friends. There’s no reason to remember who starred in that film, or the location of that hip restaurant, because all that information is as close as the nearest internet connection.

If we don’t need to remember this kind of information, is it possible that we will forget how to store and recall facts?

My biggest memory issue — aside from remembering peoples’ names — is remembering passwords. There are so many sites that require passwords, and I don’t remember which ones I use where.

All I know is that I’ve been relying on Firefox to remember for me, but I’ve heard enough about identity theft to wonder whether that’s a good idea. How many passwords can anyone reasonably remember? I can only think of five; the others are lost in memory.

At least I don’t work in one of those offices where the network password is changed every month. I’d have to write it down.

dilbert cartoon

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Related Links:
BBC: “Memory issue hits 10% of pupils”
USA Today: “This is the Google side of your brain”
Wired: “Your outboard brain knows all”
Computers, memory and thought
The Neurological Scratchpad: Looking into Working Memory