Archive of Adventures in Science Columns

Culver City News

Adventures in Science Column

“Man explores the universe around him and calls the adventure Science.”

Edwin Hubble

I write a Monthly Science Column for my local community newspaper.


January 2010

What’s the Worst That Can Happen? Space Weather Impacts in 2012

The field of space weather studies the technological and societal impacts of the solar terrestrial relationship. This emerging field of space science has become increasingly important due to modern society’s dependence on global communication systems and continental scale power distribution systems. Solar storms (such as coronal mass ejections and solar flares) can cause geomagnetic impacts that can damage or destroy satellites, perturb satellite communication and navigation systems, sicken or kill astronauts and cause power blackouts.

Though the current solar minimum is unprecedented in the space age in terms of its low solar activity and subsequent low geomagnetic activity, the forecast is for solar maximum to arrive in a few years. As part of a National Research Council’s (NRC) Space Studies Board workshop on the economic impact of space weather, the worst-case scenarios on different technological systems were investigated [NRC, 2008]. The most intense geomagnetic storm ever measured occurred in 1859 and is often called the Carrington Event after British astronomer Richard Carrington’s observation of a white light flare and suggestion that the subsequent geomagnetic storm was connected. This observation ushered in the field of space physics (see for an online history of the scientists and discoveries of space physics as well as links to seminal papers including the original Carrington paper). The space weather effects of the 1859 Carrington storm included disruption of telegraph signals and observation of aurora at mid and even tropical latitudes.

What would happen if a solar storm of this magnitude (or other large storms observed in the pre-space age era) hit Earth today? This month’s column concentrates on the possible impact on the electric distribution system since this effect could be the worst natural disaster in modern history with costs estimated over a trillion US dollars and impacts reaching across every industry and every segment of society.

First a very short summary of how geomagnetic storms impact ground electrical systems. Electric currents driven by the interaction of the solar wind and interplanetary magnetic field with the Earth’s magnetic field flow through the magnetosphere and ionosphere. These time-varying and spatially localized electrical currents close in the upper atmosphere in the auroral regions. An effect of these time-changing currents flowing in the ionosphere is the induction of an EMF along electrical transmission wires. If a Carrington Storm hit when North America was undergoing a cold snap or heat wave that was taxing the electrical generation and distribution system (or non-intuitively even during periods of light load when many generation systems are off-line and hence long-distance power transfers are more important), the enhanced voltages induced in the grid could cause overloading of transformers. Because of the interconnection of the North American power grid, a transformer failure has the potential to cascade through the system as power is shunted from one line to another to attempt to get around the failed transformer. This can cause failures of transformers across the system. The March 1989 space weather storm caused a massive power blackout in Canada when Hydro Quebec transformers failed. In 2003 there was a cascading failure of power transmission due to a tree branch in Ohio that caused the largest blackout in US history affecting nearly 50 million people with power lost from Detroit to New York City (see for a report on the causes and consequences of this failure).

A Carrington-class storm has the potential to trigger such a cascade and cause the destruction of hundreds of major transformers. To repair the damaged electrical grid could take many years to completely restore power. This estimate is based on the inventory of transformers and the production capacity of transformers worldwide. It currently takes approximately 12 months for the manufacture of one of these major transformer systems. Even if production was ramped up in response to the crisis, the amount of time required to replace these systems by the electrical power industry is estimated to be years since the transformers cannot be repaired in the field, but must be replaced.

How would your life change if Culver City went without power for a day, week, month, or year? The dependence on reliable electricity by modern civilization cannot be overstated. Critical systems (hospitals, banking centers, telecommunication centers, etc.) have redundant and backup systems, but many commercial and residential buildings do not. In addition, many redundant and backup systems fail in an emergency as happened to the Olive View UCLA Hospital in Sylmar California during the fires of 2008. The fires knocked out the power lines into the hospital, the backup generators failed, and the co-generation plant also failed. Fortunately, hospital staff was able to evacuate critical care patients to other facilities until power was restored. What would have happened if the power outages were more spatially widespread as is possible during a worst-case geomagnetic storm?

What is the economic cost of such a space weather disaster? It has been estimated, using simple models of the economic impact of lost productivity, that a North American power grid blackout would impact GDP by about $30 billion per day. A blackout that required even less than a week to recover from would surpass the economic impact of Hurricane Katrina which is estimated to have caused $120 billion in economic losses. A blackout lasting two weeks would surpass the $500 billion economic impact of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the largest US natural disaster in terms of economic impact. With estimates as long as 4 to 6 years for full recovery, the total economic impact of a severe space weather perfect storm on the US economy easily reaches into the trillions of dollars and would have profound impact on the daily lives of 100s of millions of people with economic ripples felt world-wide.

So with the next solar maximum predicted to arrive around 2012 (give or take a few years) the basic premise of the current disaster blockbuster “2012” movie predicting the end of civilization due to a solar storm is perhaps not too far off base, though the plate tectonic response due to the solar storm – the premise of the movie – is pure Hollywood. The reality, though less physically destructive, could have profound worldwide impacts.

Mark Moldwin is a Professor of Space Physics at UCLA and the University of Michigan and can be reached at [email protected] (This essay was adapted from an article written by the author for the Student Solar Newsletter)

December 2009

Global Warming Controversy: Political vs. Scientific Debates

We constantly seek understanding of what happens around us by observing, seeking patterns, and developing models or conceptual frameworks to explain our observations. Humans are very good at developing models that successfully explain our experiences often based on limited information. The lack of complete information often leads to the development of multiple models or ideas that can explain the same observations. Science controversies are usually about determining which model does the best job of explaining the observations.  An example of scientific debate from the past was about how to explain the day-night cycle of sunlight and darkness. There are several possible explanations or models that equally well explain why we have day and night. The day-night cycle could be due to the Earth rotating on its axis once per day changing which half of the Earth is in sunlight or the Earth could be stationary (non-rotating) and the Sun revolves around the Earth as was believed for most of human history. Both models can correctly predict the location of the Sun in the sky and clearly predict day and night. In order to distinguish which model is correct, we must go beyond our observations of the day-night cycle and develop predictions of what else is implied by the different models. For the Earth spinning, we can predict that we should be able to observe the rotation with regard to another fixed object. A 19th-century French physicist, Jean Benard Léon Foucault developed a device to act as such a “fixed” reference. Foucault’s pendulum demonstrated the rotation of the Earth by observing the Earth rotating beneath the swinging pendulum.  The pendulum swings in the same “fixed” direction while the Earth spins below it and conclusively demonstrated Copernicus’ idea of the Earth’s rotation as opposed to the Sun’s revolution to explain the reason for day and night. (A Foucault pendulum is swinging every day at Griffith Observatory). Scientists develop models based on our understanding of physics, chemistry, and biology that can explain the current observations and we test the models by making predictions that can be observed through an experiment, computer simulation, or by further observations. Often there are multiple models that do a good job at explaining the limited observations, but as more observations are made and more experiments are conducted to refine our understanding of our observations, models are either discarded or modified – this is the nature of a scientific debate.

            With regards to global warming, there were two main competing scientific models: (1) the Earth’s climate undergoes natural variations due to a wide variety of factors including dynamical changes in the Earth’s orbit and hence the recent global warming (if real) is due to natural climate variability and (2) the current global warming is directly attributable to man-made emissions of greenhouse gases due to the use of carbon-based fuels. The implications of which model is correct have profound economic and societal impacts and therefore the debate is waged far outside scientific circles. Because of the heated partisan debate, Americans’ confusion about the science behind climate has deepened according to recent polls. The brouhaha over hacked email exchanges in the news over the last few weeks has added to the deterioration of the tone of the debate just as the world’s governments convene in Copenhagen for discussions on the global response to climate change. Has our scientific understanding of which of the two models best explains the observations changed over the last few decades? Absolutely, the evidence that supports the anthropogenic or man-made causes of global warming has increased significantly. This includes correlations of concentrations of C02 in the atmosphere with global temperatures, development of validated computer simulations that are able to explain the most recent past and predict a warming planet due to CO2 emissions, and the disappearance of ice around the globe, especially the rapid decline of arctic sea ice, the loss of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, and the disappearance of tropical glaciers such as those in Bolivia and on Mt. Kilimanjaro to name just a few solid lines of evidence that support the observation that global warming is occurring and the model that carbon-based energy systems are contributing to that warming. The first model has elements that are also correct (there is natural climate variability), but most of the natural climate change drivers that have been observed in the past do not act rapidly enough to explain the observed temperature changes in the last 100 years. The physics and chemistry of greenhouse warming is indisputable though all the details of how all the different parts of the climate system (atmosphere, oceans, biosphere, soil, ice) respond to increased warming and atmospheric CO2 are not known.  So despite the lack of complete certainty in how the climate system works, we have a very good understanding of the fundamental science behind climate and all the scientific models predict that we are dramatically changing our climate which potentially could have significant impacts on society. As the tone of the debate becomes more and more heated, keep in mind much of the debate is political and economic and not scientific. The goal of those fighting for the status quo is to create artificial science controversies in order to delay any action.

Mark Moldwin is a professor of Space Physics at UCLA and the University of Michigan and can be contacted at [email protected]

October 2009

Living in the past.

Did you know that you are always living in the past? We see things when emitted or reflected light enters our eyes. Though light moves very fast – 186,000 miles per second (if you could move the speed of light you could circle the Earth nearly 7.5 times in one second), it takes a finite amount of time to travel. Light travels about one foot per nano-second (one billionth of a second). So if you are watching a bird outside your window 10 feet away, you are actually observing the bird 10 nano-seconds in the past. However, if you look at objects in the sky such as the moon, sun, or stars you are seeing them as they were in the past (for the moon you are observing it as it was 1.28 seconds ago, and the sunlight shining on your face left the sun 8 minutes ago). When you look up at the night sky and see the countless stars, you are actually seeing the stars as they appeared in some cases 1000s of years in the past. Because of the “astronomical” distances between the stars, astronomers use a unit called light-years to express distance. A light-year is the distance traveled by light in one year (5,878,630,000,000 miles – nearly 6 trillion miles). In late October around 8pm, the bright star nearly directly overhead is Deneb in the constellation Cygnus (the Swan), one of the stars of the Summer Triangle. It is located 1600 light years away and is one of the brightest and farthest stars visible with the unaided eye. If we could send a radio signal to any planets that are orbiting Deneb, it would take 1600 years for the message to arrive.

However, Deneb is not the most distant object (or the farthest we can look into the past) that we can see with the unaided eye. One of the incredible discoveries of the 20th century was Edwin Hubble’s observation that the visible universe is made up of countless galaxies. Galaxies are large collections of stars, gas, and dust that orbit a central region due to the gravitational attraction of the material. Our own star – the Sun – is just one of an estimated 100 billion stars in our own galaxy – the Milky Way. The stars in the Milky Way are confined to a very thin disk of stars that extends over 100,000 light years across (so note that we can only see with our unaided eye a very small fraction of the stars even in our own galaxy).

Because galaxies are large collections of billions of stars – and are therefore very bright compared to a single star, we can see one of our nearest galaxies with the unaided eye. The Andromeda Galaxy is located nearly 2.5 million light years away, meaning that the light that enters our eye on a clear night from Andromeda, left the galaxy over 2.5 million years ago. Andromeda is one of my favorite galaxies and the middle name of my daughter and can be currently seen in the evening in the eastern sky if you go to a dark location (such as Joshua Tree National Park).  It is in the constellation Andromeda between the constellation Cassiopeia (the five bright stars in this constellation make a “W” in the sky) and the square of Pegasus. With the aid of telescopes, like the newly revamped Hubble Space Telescope, we are now observing galaxies over 10 billion light-years away. These galaxies were formed relatively early in the history of our universe and well before the birth of our Sun and Earth and give us information about how the universe formed and evolved.

So next time you look up at the night sky, not only marvel at the beauty of the firmament but also wonder how long into the past you are looking.

Mark Moldwin is a Professor of Space Physics at UCLA and the University of Michigan and can be contacted at [email protected]

September 2009

When night comes early

One of the most incredible natural events is a total solar eclipse. They happen when the Earth’s Moon passes in front of the Sun casting a shadow onto the Earth. Though the Moon’s diameter is much smaller than the Sun’s, it is much closer, so that it appears as the same size in the sky allowing it to completely block the disk of the Sun. This happens about once per year when the Moon’s orbital path brings the moon across the imaginary line connecting the Sun and the Earth at New Moon (when the Moon is between the Sun and the Earth [see diagram]. Full Moon occurs with the Moon being on the opposite side of the Earth than the Sun. A lunar eclipse happens when the Full Moon passes into the shadow of the Earth and is more common than solar eclipses because the Earth and its shadow are larger).

Solar eclipses do not happen every month since the Moon orbits the Earth in an elliptical path whose plane is inclined to the ecliptic plane (the plane that contains the Sun and Earth). Therefore most New Moons occur when the Moon is above or below the Sun as viewed from Earth and therefore the Moon’s shadow does not cross the Earth.

The size of the shadow is fairly small so you need to be at the right place at the right time to see a total solar eclipse. The path of the shadow across the Earth is called the Path of Totality. It is generally just over 100 miles wide and the total eclipse only lasts a few minutes at a given point on Earth. Where the path crosses the Earth depends on the season and the time that the eclipse starts. Though eclipses happen usually at least once per year, few people usually get to see one, since most of the Earth is unoccupied (oceans, polar regions, deserts, mountains).

On July 22, my family and another Culver City family visited Shanghai China to observe a total solar eclipse. The eclipse was scheduled to last for over 5 minutes, one of the longest eclipses in many years. The night before the eclipse severe thunderstorms and rain pelted Shanghai. Dawn broke with a light drizzle and overcast and rainy skies over much of the path of totality. Our group decided to take our chances and go to our planned observing site near the coast of the East China Sea. When we arrived at the site the rain stopped but the skies were completely overcast. We were treated to a glimpse of the Sun through the clouds when the Moon first started to cross over the Sun (called First Contact), but the clouds soon closed back up completely obscuring the Sun. It takes over an hour for the Moon to completely block out the Sun (Second Contact and the beginning of Totality) and the clouds – though moving rapidly – continued to block our view of the Sun. A few minutes prior to Totality, we were treated to a crescent Sun as the clouds thinned enough to see the partial eclipse. The clouds remained thin enough to watch the Moon completely block out the Sun, descend day into night, and view the wispy corona or atmosphere of the Sun. Egrets that were feeding nearby suddenly took off to fly to their nesting sites and we all marveled at the dark moon completely covering the Sun exposing just the bright ring of light of the lower atmosphere of the Sun. All too quickly, totality passed, and the crescent Sun reappeared flooding the Earth with light. The egrets flew back out to their daytime feeding site and we all high-fived each other at the incredible fortune we had of the clouds clearing just in time. About 10 minutes after Totality the rain returned for much of the rest of the day.

There are several solar eclipses coming up over the next few years, but like this year’s eclipse, they will require travel. In 2010 the total eclipse is visible from Easter Island in the eastern Pacific and in 2012 from North Australia. The next total solar eclipse to be visible in the United States occurs in August of 2017. The eclipse will start to be visible in Oregon and reach the maximum extent near St. Louis MO. I highly recommend that you plan your summer travels that year to take you into the path of totality and see one of the most incredible natural wonders. It is simply awe-inspiring.

Videos of this year’s eclipse can be found at–Videos-from-India-China-and-Japan–Live-and-web-coverage

Pictures can be found at


April 2009

Celebrating the 400th Anniversary of Galileo’s Discoveries

Four hundred years ago, in 1609, Galileo Galilei (1564- 1642), my hero (and my son’s middle name) changed how we view the heavens – he turned the newly invented spyglass to the Moon and discovered that it had mountains and valleys just like Earth. He then improved the design of the spyglass and using his new telescope (a word coined to describe Galileo’s improved spyglass) made a string of discoveries that provided evidence to support the Copernican heliocentric (Sun centered) cosmology.

At the time, the dominant view of the heavens, which lasted for nearly 1400 years, was the Ptolemaic geocentric (Earth-centered) cosmology. In Ptolemy’s model, based on Aristotle’s ideas, the stars, planets, Sun, and Moon all orbit the stationary Earth. The model, developed to explain why the stars appear to move in lockstep across the sky each night from East to West, had the stars sitting on a sphere – the celestial sphere. The seven known heavenly bodies (the Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn) each moved on their own perfect sphere all centered on the Earth. The spheres were nested like Russian dolls, and each moved independently of the others.

In 1543, just before he died, Nicolas Copernicus published his great work De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres) outlining the heliocentric model (the word “revolution” meaning “to overthrow” originated in the work of Copernicus). This model had the five known planets – and Earth – orbiting the Sun. This idea moved the Earth away from the center of the universe, which went against Aristotle’s observations and against the Catholic Church teachings that Earth is at the center of God’s creation (in Genesis God made Earth first, then the Sun and stars around it).

Galileo’s observations made in 1609 and 1610 provided direct evidence that supported a heliocentric view and showed that many of Aristotle’s ideas were wrong. Galileo observed that Venus has phases like the Moon which is consistent with Venus orbiting the Sun closer than the Earth. He also discovered that four moons orbit Jupiter. This showed that not everything orbits the Earth. He also projected an image of the Sun through his telescope onto a piece of paper and observed that the Sun had blemishes – called sunspots. This contradicted Aristotle’s view that the heavens were perfect. Finally, he turned his telescope to the Milky Way – the broad swath of faintly glowing night sky  – and discovered that it is actually made up of stars, so numerous and distant that with the unaided eye they resemble a glowing cloud. This suggested that the stars in the Milky Way were very far away and if the stars could be at different distances from Earth instead of all on a celestial sphere perhaps our Sun is just a star that happens to be close by.

Taken together – the discoveries that Galileo made beginning in 1609 and published in his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems led him to support the Copernican cosmology and reject the Ptolemaic/Aristotelian cosmology believed by the Catholic Church. This brought Galileo in front of the Inquisition. They forced him to recant his interpretation of his observations that the Earth’s spin gives rise to the apparent motion of the seven heavenly bodies and the stars across the sky, and that the Earth is just one of the planets that all orbit the Sun. As punishment, he was put under house arrest where he lived out the remaining years of his life.

To celebrate the genius and courage of Galileo, the international astronomical community has declared 2009 the International Year of Astronomy. A large number of public events throughout the year will celebrate Galileo’s contributions and what we have learned about our universe over the last 400 years. For more information about these events, visit or Griffith Observatory ( Dava Sobel’s wonderful book Galileo’s Daughter describes Galileo through letters he shared with his daughter.  On the next clear night, look up and marvel at the heavens and celebrate Galileo and his contributions to our understanding of the cosmos.

Mark Moldwin is a Professor of Space Physics at UCLA. He can be reached at [email protected]

March 2009

An Astronomer’s view of Astrology

According to a recent Gallup poll, over 55% of American teenagers and over 40% of all Americans believe in some aspects of astrology.  What is astrology? Astrologers believe that a person’s character and future depend on the position of the Sun, Moon, and planets with respect to the background stars and constellations at the moment of his or her birth.  They make forecasts using horoscopes (descriptions of celestial objects’ positions at the time of birth) to predict a person’s future and to provide insight into character. Every person is assigned an astrological (Sun or zodiac) sign based on the date of birth (mine is Taurus), which supposedly corresponds to the constellation the Sun was in at the time of birth. Astrologers complain that this is an oversimplification and that true astrologers will take into account all the important ingredients, including the exact time of birth, to make a horoscope, but since most of us only read the 12 zodiacal horoscopes based broadly on birth month (as published in the Culver City News and LA Times), I will discuss these here.

 The astrological birth sign corresponds to one of the twelve original constellations in the zodiac (Pisces, Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Libra, Scorpius, Sagittarius, Capriconus, Aquarius). Each year the Sun makes an apparent path through these zodiacal constellations. The traditional dates corresponding to Sun signs were assigned by dividing the zodiac up into 12 roughly equal parts nearly centered on the appropriate zodiacal constellation. (A Taurus is defined as someone born between April 20 and May 20). Unfortunately, for believers in astrology, the direction of Earth’s orbital inclination (or tilt) to the ecliptic wobbles (like a spinning top). This wobble, called precession, causes the Sun’s position against the background stars to shift about 1 degree every 72 years (taking about 26,000 years to process all the way around). Since the original development of the zodiac over 3000 years ago, the Sun’s position has shifted essentially one-twelfth of the way around. Thus, the position of the Sun at birth is shifted one zodiacal sign from what is assigned by astrologers (a Pisces is actually an Aquarius, and the Sun is actually inside the constellation Taurus between May 16 and June 21, so I am really an Aries). To make matters worse, the Sun crosses 13 constellations, including Ophiuchus. The paths of the eight planets (not including Pluto) cross 21 different constellations.
Astrology had a major influence on the history and development of astronomy. Ancient astronomers were motivated to measure the positions of the stars and planets and to keep track of eclipses for astrological reasons (the term horoscope is from the Latin horoscopium, which, in turn, is from the Greek words for boundary (the horizon) and target [object of observation]). Astrologers’ terminology, measurements, and techniques were the foundation of astronomical knowledge. Many famous 16th and early 17th century astronomers, such as Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler, and Galileo Galilei, practiced astrology to augment their income.  Even then, however, many people thought of astrologers as charlatans.
From an astronomer’s point of view, astrology is a pseudoscientific belief system with its roots in astronomical observations and ancient beliefs about the role of the heavens on our fates. Astrology has no scientific basis, and horoscopes should be read only for fun and entertainment. An astrologer cannot tell you anything about your personality or your future. For an accurate prediction about future celestial events, consult an astronomer, not an astrologer. I can tell you the exact time of the next sunrise and the next full moon, the precise moment when summer will arrive, and when and where to see the next solar eclipse. For those who wonder why people believe in such things as astrology, I recommend Carl Sagan’s Demon-Haunted World, a wonderful book and a passionate call for critical thinking in our daily lives.

February 2009

The Fallacy of Cheap and Clean Coal

One of the most abundant and cheap carbon-based fuels found in the United States, coal is used to generate about 50% of U.S. electricity. It is one of the dirtiest fuels however; it pollutes the environment in every step of production and use, mountain topping and open-pit mines destroy landscapes and contaminate local watersheds. Mercury from coal burning is the leading man-made source of mercury in our lakes and oceans and has impacted fisheries worldwide. Air pollution from coal burning has contributed to acid rain and other air quality issues. As the recent disaster in Tennessee demonstrated, coal ash left over from burning is often stored in huge pools of coal ash slurry that impacts water quality. Finally, coal is the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions (a third of U.S. emissions), equal to all the greenhouse emissions from the transportation sector (cars, busses, trucks, trains, and ships).

Because the coal and power industries and consumers do not pay directly for the environmental impact of coal’s use, it is one of the cheapest sources of energy. Coal contributes to the U.S. energy independence. With global warming concerns, coal ash spills, and the environmental degradation in coal-producing states raising the awareness of the true costs of coal use, the coal industry has developed a new marketing campaign to promote the continued use of coal under the umbrella term “clean coal”. The most recent aspect of this effort is the promotion of carbon capture, in which CO2 produced by the burning of coal is captured and sequestered underground. Such technology does not exist, however, and numerous technical and economic hurdles must be overcome before it can be made viable. Retrofitting existing coal-fired power plants into “clean-coal” plants is not practical. New plants would have to be designed and built specifically to allow the capture of CO2.

As I have written previously, global warming will have potentially catastrophic impacts on agriculture and coastal areas. Including environmental costs in the price of using carbon-based fuels, especially coal, as necessitated by global warming concerns, will essentially force the U.S. and the rest of the world to abandon coal. In the short term, this would have huge economic impacts for the cost of nearly everything and therefore is deemed not practical or possible. However, the medium and long-term consequences of continuing our reliance on coal are possibly even more catastrophic. Can we balance short and long-term costs in our public, science, and energy policy? Or will we ignore the threat of global warming, environmental degradation, and air and water pollution and continue with business as usual? Of course there are solutions to this crisis by quickly phasing in alternative clean energy supplies (solar, wind, geothermal and ocean sources), enhanced efficiency measures, and increased conservation efforts. There are, however, considerable political roadblocks since many states depend on coal extraction for much of their state’s economy. For more information about the promise and considerable risks of “clean coal” technologies, see the recent Union of Concerned Scientists report at

January 2009

Alternative Energy from the Ocean

Abundant amounts of alternative, renewable, and ecologically friendly energy are all about us. Although solar, wind, and geothermal are most often mentioned, oceans are also a source of huge amounts of renewable energy. Tides and winds drive ocean motion, whose mechanical energy can be harnessed to power generators. In addition, oceans are the world’s largest solar collectors and store substantial amounts of thermal energy that can drive turbines to create electricity.

Living in Culver City along the shores of the Pacific Ocean, we understand the power of waves. Mechanical wave energy can be captured using a piston that floats on the surface of the water. Wave action moves the piston up and down, driving a generator that creates electricity. In many locations off the Pacific coast, waves are high enough approximately 80 to 90% of the time to generate electricity. (In contrast, many wind farms and all solar cells operate only 50% of the time.) Another way to tap ocean mechanical energy is to take advantage of currents or tides. A device similar to an underwater windmill is used to do this. Several commercial wave and tide generation stations now operate in other countries and a number of prototype power generation stations (including off the shore of Florida to take advantage of the Gulf current) are being tested. In all, about 40 different designs for generating power from ocean waves and tides are currently being explored for commercial use in the United States.

Another way to tap the oceans for clean, renewable power is to use the difference between the warm ocean surface and the cold deep water to drive a turbine. Several techniques take advantage of this temperature difference (or gradient). In one, a fluid with a low boiling point, such as ammonia, is used. The warm surface water vaporizes the fluid, creating an expanding gas that drives an electricity-generating turbine. Cold, deep-ocean water, brought to the surface in large, long pipes condenses the vapor back into a liquid to repeat the cycle. A temperature difference of at least 36 ºF is needed to operate such a system efficiently.  Numerous coastal locations around the world have sufficiently large ocean temperature gradients to make this practical.

We have not taken advantage of alternative, renewable, and ecologically sustainable sources of energy, such as ocean power because our federal energy policy promotes and subsidizes traditional carbon-based, non-renewable, environmentally destructive energy sources such as coal, gas and oil. For America to become energy independent and to combat global warming, a federal energy policy that promotes alternative energy innovation and factors in the real costs of continuing to use traditional carbon-based fuels is needed. Unfortunately, a transition from non-renewable to renewable energy sources comes with potentially significant short-term costs.  Are we capable of investing in the future, or will we continue to pass today’s costs to future generations? Next month’s column will look at the fallacy of clean-coal as an answer to our energy needs.

November 2008

Can you imagine the future?

Almost daily, the news is filled with apocalyptic warnings about the collapse of the financial system, the American automobile industry, the housing market, the educational system, and state government. Seemingly intractable problems, such as effects of global warming, the economic and political costs of energy choices, pressures from population growth, and our crumbling infrastructure, confront us. Many seem to have appeared almost overnight.
Why is our society apparently incapable of predicting these problems and avoiding them or solving them once they arise? Because our ability to imagine, predict, and plan for the future is very limited. Our predictions are usually linear, based on a smooth extrapolation of the past. Despite our awareness of exponential changes in science and technology that have allowed unprecedented growth in population and wealth over the last century, we have difficulty visualizing a drastically different future. We imagine that tomorrow will be very similar to today and next year not too different from this year.
Given the magnitude of the problems facing us, can we afford to view the future in such a way? In my opinion, we cannot. I fear that changes put in motion over the past century could lead to disruption of modern civilization in our lifetime. We must consider the consequences of continued inaction regarding population growth, energy use, environmental degradation, and use of non-renewable resources All of us (individuals, families, community and business leaders, and politicians) need to think not only about the immediate future (the next quarterly statement, or congressional election cycle), but also about the next generation and the generation after that.
 Do we have the imagination, energy, intellect, ability, and collective will to solve these national and global problems? Or will the challenges that confront us today prevent us from planning for generations to come?
In past columns I have written about a few of the problems mentioned above. In future columns I will describe exciting science and engineering research on alternative energy that could play a significant role in drastically changing how the world is powered and in so doing, address pressing issues of energy independence, restoration of the American transportation sector, and global warming.

October 2008

Science and Religion

The relationship between science and religion is complex and fascinating. The view that they are two equivalent ways of knowing about our human experience gives rise to the notion that they are in competition and conflict. As a scientist, I share the opinion of the late Stephen Jay Gould, that science and religion occupy two different, non-overlapping realms Рor magisteria Рof human endeavor. Science seeks to understand the physical world, and religion the meaning of the human existence. Unfortunately, this view is not universally held. Many, particularly in the United States, hold fundamentalist religious beliefs about concepts, such as the age of the Earth and the evolution of life, that are more appropriately addressed by science.  Such ideas as that the Earth is only 6000 years old and that humans were created in our present form are irrational and demonstrably wrong.

Why is this important? Why can’t people be allowed to believe what they want to believe? What is the harm in having much of society hold such views? Because these irrational beliefs directly attack the validity of science and call into question the entire scientific enterprise. They promote ignorance.

Science and religion differ in important ways other than their realms of validity. Science uses observations, understanding of physics, chemistry, biology, geology, and astronomy to understand the world. It is self-correcting, relying on the reproducibility of results and the peer-review process that constantly puts observations and the interpretation of observations (called models or theories) to the test.

For example, the scientific approach to the question of the age of the Earth leads to the fields of geology, geochemistry, physics, and astronomy, exploring the determination of the age of rocks and meteorites, our understanding of stellar evolution and planetary formation, and the study of relative abundances of radioactive isotopes. Each step is filled with the adventure of discovery, the hard work of developing observational techniques, and the even harder work of creating models that piece together all the observations into a consistent theory. And the work doesn’t stop once an answer is found. Scientists attempt to reconcile the answer with our knowledge of the Sun, life, and the remainder of the universe. Is the answer consistent with our understanding of the age of other objects in the universe? Can we rely on each link in the chain of observations, assumptions and theories that led us to the answer? Does the answer help us understand other areas of science? The answer will continue to be changed or revised as better understanding of physics and chemistry develops and new geological and astronomical observations are made.

Approaching the same question using religion not only leads to a different answer, but also arrives at it using a completely different path- unquestioned reliance on a religious text or expert. Consistency with other observations is not relevant. The answer doesn’t generally change.

The concept of an Earth older than anything anyone ever imagined is fairly modern. Not until the late 1950s was the current best estimate of Earth’s age (about 4.5 billion years) determined by studying the age of meteorites using radioactive dating techniques. Since then, new discoveries about ancient life, increased understanding of the evolution of Earth, the study of lunar rocks and ancient rocks on Earth, and the determination of the age of the universe have all helped confirm this estimate and place tighter constraints on its uncertainty. (Understanding of measurement uncertainty is part of science. There usually isn‚Äôt any uncertainty in religion.)

Science and religion do not need to be in conflict if it is understood that they deal with different realms of human experience and therefore address different questions. Conflict arises when one attempts to answer questions better left to the other. I respect everyone’s beliefs about the human experience, but as a scientist, I will challenge any beliefs about the natural world that are not consistent with science. I will always promote rational thinking over irrational ignorance.

September 2008

Past the tipping point

Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth brought the phrase “tipping point” into the American vernacular. The tipping point is the point in time when a system, such as Earth’s climate, begins to change irreversibly. Systems tend to be in equilibrium (very stable) and energy is required to knock one out of equilibrium. The stability of the system and the amount of energy in the disturbance determine whether the system can transition into an equilibrium different from the original. For example, a marble at rest on a table can be considered in equilibrium. If I bump the table, I could cause the marble to roll off and come to rest in a new equilibrium on the floor. Another marble in a shallow bowl on the same table would move when the table is bumped, but if the bump were not too hard, the marble would just roll up the side of the bowl and then back down, eventually returning to its original equilibrium position at the bottom of the bowl. A third marble sitting on top of an overturned bowl can be knocked off the table even more easily than the one sitting on the table surface. A little nudge will get it rolling down the slope of the bowl. The marble inside the bowl is in stable equilibrium – considerable energy is needed to knock it into a new equilibrium because it has a mechanism (the sides of the bowl) to help keep it on the table. The marble on top of the overturned bowl is in unstable equilibrium – very little energy is needed to knock it into another equilibrium because it has a mechanism (the slope of the bowl) to help it speed up after a little nudge. The tipping point is the point of no return. Once the marble is given enough speed to make it to the edge of the table, it will fall off the table and transition to a new and different equilibrium.

A number of climate system mechanisms have helped keep the Earth’s temperature stable over the last 10,000 years. One of the most important is the polar ice caps. Ice at the poles reflects sunlight back into space, helping to regulate temperature. If the Earth’s temperature gets warmer (as it is currently due to burning of carbon-based fuels and increased release of greenhouse gases), the ice caps shrink, decreasing the amount of sunlight reflected back into space and increasing global temperature even more. In addition, solar radiation that is normally reflected back to space is absorbed by the darker open water, which increases the ocean temperature and further accelerates ice melting. Currently, the northern polar arctic ice cap is shrinking at an alarming rate. A few years ago, climate models predicted that the north pole could be ice-free by 2100. Two years ago predictions were revised down to 2050. The last two years have seen the ice shrink even faster, suggesting that the Arctic could be ice-free in just a few more years.

Observational evidence such as this suggests that we have passed the tipping point. Global warming is not a problem of the future; it is a reality today. We will feel its impact in the years to come. How will we respond, adapt, and change? To learn more about the rapid loss of arctic sea ice visit a web source from the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

August 2008

Why Pluto is no longer a planet

In 2006, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) kicked Pluto out of the planet club. The IAU, which consists of the world’s professional astronomers, is the clearinghouse for astronomical discoveries and is responsible for formally classifying and naming astronomical objects. This was not the first time that a planet had been reclassified. When the first object in the asteroid belt was discovered in 1801 by Guiseppe Piazzi, it was named Ceres and was thought to be a planet between Mars and Jupiter. In subsequent decades, however, more and more asteroids with the same orbit were found. Eventually it was realized there was an asteroid belt consisting of millions of objects. The IAU definition of a planet requires that the body essentially clear out its orbit of other objects and therefore, Ceres is not a planet, but just the largest asteroid in the asteroid belt.

Similarly in 1930, when Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto beyond the orbit of Neptune, it was hailed as the 9th planet. With the advent of new telescopes and computerized cameras in the last few decades, scores and scores of other objects beyond Neptune have been discovered. It is now estimated that there are billions of objects beyond Neptune. In 2001, my colleague at Cal Tech – Michael Brown – discovered an object larger than Pluto. It was named Eris, and the debate about whether it was the 10th planet began. In 2006, the IAU voted to make Eris, Ceres, Pluto, and its moon, Charon, a new class of objects – dwarf planets. Although many astronomers did not like this new classification scheme, and the demotion of Pluto was unpopular with the public, the new classification scheme prevailed.

This year an IAU committee revisited the issue and came up with the term plutoid to describe objects beyond Neptune. Many astronomers do not like this classification name. When IAU meets again at its next triannual conference in 2009, I am sure the debate on what to call Pluto and its fellow trans-Neptunian objects will continue. Until then, Pluto is still Pluto, but whether it is a planet, dwarf planet, plutoid, or just the first of billions of trans-Neptunian objects discovered will be debated in astronomical circles. For those curious about the new official definition of a planet, dwarf planet and plutoids, see the official IAU web page at

July 2008

Is there life on Mars?

Three operational satellites are currently orbiting Mars, and three robots are exploring its surface.¬† In the years to come, NASA plans to launch even more satellites and landers. Why is there so much interest in Mars? The simple answer is “life”.

Although Mars is now cold, barren, and dry, recent evidence has conclusively demonstrated that significant amounts of water were once on its surface and much water is now locked up as ice near its poles. The Mars Phoenix mission, which landed near the north pole, has discovered ice a few centimeters (inches) below the surface. Why is this finding significant? On Earth, wherever liquid water exists, life is found. If liquid water existed on Mars in the past and water ice currently exists there, was there life on Mars in the past, and is there now life on Mars?

Most space and planetary scientists think that any life on Mars must be in microbial form. On Earth, microbial life can be found even in extreme environments Рin deep ocean vents, miles below the surface inside of volcanic rocks, in hot springs, and within the ice sheets of Antarctica. Such microbes are called extremophiles.  The Phoenix lander has demonstrated that Martian soil would be hospitable to life.  Even though conditions such as atmospheric pressure, temperature, and radiation environment on Mars are extreme compared to those on Earth, nothing has been found to preclude the possibility of finding extremophile microbes there.

Evidence of existing microbial life or fossil evidence of past life on Mars would indicate that life is not unique to Earth. In fact if life is found on Mars, one conclusion would be that life may be common throughout the solar system, galaxy, and universe and would answer the age-old question – “Are we alone?” with a resounding ‚ÄúNO‚Äù. What would your reaction be to this discovery?¬†¬† How would it change your views of life? To keep up to date on the latest Mars research, see NASA’s Mars Exploration webpage ( To see Mars during the month of July and early August, look west just after dark. It is the bright reddish “star”. The bright yellow “star” nearby is Saturn. In the East, the brilliant bright white “star” is Jupiter.

June 2008

Do you speak the language of math?

Math can frighten both small children and adults. It requires logical thinking and the memorization of a small set of rules, including the times tables, how to multiply fractions, and how to handle negative numbers. Once these have been mastered, a whole new worldview is open.

Making sense of almost every headline in the news today requires understanding of math. Oil prices continue their steady climb; traffic delays get worse; the global temperature is rising; the national debt is increasing, and unemployment and the price of food are up. To truly understand these headlines, a critical thinker always should ask, How much and how fast are these things changing? and Can we make predictions using these numbers? Individuals, institutions, and government make decisions about our future based on attempts to understand these numbers. In a democracy, it is important for everyone to understand the numbers and the rationale for such decisions.

One important math function that many people do not understand – to our detriment as a society – is the exponential. Exponentials describe some of the most important things in nature and life, such as populations and investments. They can determine how long it will take a population or the savings in your bank account to double. The rule of 70 (divide 70 by the rate of growth) gives the amount of time required for something to double if it grows at a constant rate. For example, the population of California has been growing at about 1.5% per year. Therefore, the population will double in 70/1.5 = 47 years. A typical yield on a bank account is about 2.5% per year. Therefore, a $1000 investment will double in (70/2.5 =) 28 years. How does knowing these things help us plan for the future and understand the potential ramifications of policy and personal decisions that are made today? The first example tells us to expect a population of over 70 million in California in about 2055. The second example tells us that in order to save wisely for retirement, we need to start early and make regular investments (or find higher yields). The ability to read and understand mathematical arguments is called “numeracy”. Numeracy is to math as literacy is to language. Everyone understands the difficulty an illiterate person faces in life. Problems from being innumerate are equally harsh. In today’s technical society, we must all understand what it means if California continues to grow at 1.5%, or how much we need to save for retirement if costs continue to rise at 3% a year (the average inflation rate in the US for decades). There are a number of books to help get back up to speed with simple math including “All the Math You’ll Ever Need: A Self-Teaching Guide” by Steve Slavin (1999). For parents who fear math, the book “Math: Facing an American Phobia” by Marilyn Burns (1998) addresses the reasons for math’s dreadful reputation and shows how to prevent your own children from adopting similar negative attitudes toward math.

May 2008

Wanderers over Culver City.

As summer approaches, we spend more time outdoors into the late evening. It is worth looking up at the night sky to try to spot planets. Two of our celestial neighbors, Saturn and Mars, are beginning their slow journey across the background stars towards the west and will be visible high in the sky in the evening through the end of July. Mars, a bright reddish “star”, and Saturn, a bright yellow “star”, can be seen fairly close together in the western sky after sunset (see star map). Mercury is visible just at sunset on the western horizon for much of May and into the first week of June. It is the bright white “star” that quickly follows the Sun below the horizon. In July, Jupiter, the largest planet in the solar system, will make its evening debut. Jupiter is one of the brightest objects in the night sky. Looking at Jupiter with a pair of binoculars will reveal the four Galilean moons (Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto), strung out in a line around it. Galileo, who was the first person to view Jupiter with a telescope, discovered these moons nearly 400 years ago. Space scientists wonder whether there could be life in the liquid water oceans beneath the icy crust that covers Europa.

The word “planet” is Greek for “wanderers” (the ancient Greeks noticed that these bright star-like objects move with respect to the background stars each night). Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn are observable with the unaided eye. Uranus and Neptune were not discovered until the telescope was invented. In 1801, the first asteroid (1 Ceres) was discovered and briefly considered as a planet. In the subsequent 50 years, 15 additional asteroids were discovered in the main asteroid belt, and it became clear that these objects, now called minor planets or asteroids, were in a distinct class different from the main planetary bodies. In 1930, Pluto was discovered beyond Neptune and became the 9th planet in the solar system. It remained a planet until 2006, when the International Astronomical Union redefined a planet and reclassified Pluto (and its moon Charon) as dwarf planets. The discovery of hundreds of Kuiper Belt Objects, including Eris, which is larger than Pluto, forced the re-examination of the definition of Pluto similarly to the creation of the new class of objects called asteroids over 200 years ago with the discovery of the main asteroid belt objects.

In 1995, the first extrasolar planet was discovered around another star. Since then over two hundred extrasolar planets have been discovered, with the rate of discovery increasing as new detection techniques make it possible to observe smaller and smaller planets. A survey of nearby star systems indicates that solar systems are a common feature of stars.  Since our solar system is not unique and perhaps just one among billions, do you think other planets like Earth are orbiting some distant star?


April 2008

Our future without oil

The economic and social consequences of increasing oil prices have received much media and congressional attention, but those of oil scarcity and depletion have not.

The Earth has a large, non-renewable supply of oil. Because of the ease of extracting oil and its high energy content, we have become dependent on it for energy and transportation. Each year we use more and more to meet our increasing demand for energy, but the supply of oil is not infinite and eventually will be depleted. An important question is when will we run out of oil?

The term “peak oil” refers to the beginning of a decline in oil production (the amount extracted from the ground). A geologist named Hubbert observed that for an individual oil field, peak oil occurs when half of the oil has been extracted. After that, the field’s flow of oil (or productivity) begins to decline. An assumption of our current energy and economic markets is that oil production will continue to increase to meet the growing demand. However, over the last few decades, “Hubbert’s peak” has arrived for many oil-producing countries (the US lower 48 reached it in 1970).

One way to postpone “peak oil” is to explore and find new oil reserves. Major oil companies and oil-producing and -dependent countries are actively pursuing this strategy. But increased demand is outstripping new discoveries by a wide margin (the US uses 20 million barrels of oil per day. To put that in perspective, the most optimistic estimate of oil production capability in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska is about one million barrels per day. At present rates of US oil consumption the total ANWR reserve (estimates range from about 4 to 10 billion barrels) would be a 6 to 20 month supply. Another problem with the – just find more oil – solution is that burning oil for fuel contributes to global warming, which will have major environmental and economic impacts in the relatively near future. So the world needs to find alternative energy sources not only to fill its transportation and energy needs without contributing to global warming, but also because oil will run out.

The question remains, when will this happen? Is the problem a distant one or a more immediate concern? The most optimistic view (held by Exxon Mobil and President Bush’s administration) is that global peak oil will not arrive until 2032. Most other experts, however, suggest that global peak oil is much nearer at hand, and some suggest that is has already been reached. In either case, we have only a few decades to develop alternative energy solutions (solar and wind are two of my favorites) and more energy-efficient transportation and power systems (advanced storage devices, hybrid vehicles, and mass transportation are three of my favorites) before the demand for oil will outstrip production. At that point, our addiction to oil will begin to have a huge economic impact with the price of oil reaching stratospheric levels.

Unless we develop alternative energy and transportation systems, our current technological (and energy-intensive) society will be in for a very rude shock. Some economists, futurists, and environmental scientists think that we are not up to the challenge and predict major disruptions and even the end of modern civilization within the next 40 years. Are they Chicken Little? Or are we Nero?

March 2008

Can human population grow forever?

In this year of presidential elections, we may hear candidates? views on issues such as the economy; the Iraq war; global warming; access to education, jobs, and affordable housing; the cost of gasoline; and access to and affordability of health care, but the role rapidly growing populations play in all of these issues is never mentioned. California’s population is predicted to grow from over 35 million to 50 million by 2050 (that is like adding five Chicagos), and the population of the United States will go from 300 million to just under 400 million by the same year. In my lifetime, Earth’s human population has doubled from 3.3 billion people to over 6.6 billion. The latest UN estimate is that world population will reach over 10 billion by the end of the century. Population grows exponentially (the larger the quantity, the faster it grows). When a population is large, even small percentage changes in population are large (the old adage that ‘it is easy to make a million dollars, it is just the first 10 million that is hard’ refers to the wonders of large numbers. A return of 10% on $100 is $10, but the same rate of return on $10 million is $1 million). The current world population growth rate is just over 1%, but that translates into nearly 80 million new people this year. A question of concern for urban and government planners is how such growth can be accommodated. Sustainability is a term used by planners who try to reconcile the push for growth in our traditional business models with the realization that at some point, exponential growth will no longer be possible because of finite resources, such as energy, food, land, water, and infrastructure (transportation, housing, education, etc.).

Often the subject of sustainability is taboo in policy discussions because the idea of limiting population growth is contrary to assumptions underlying our economic system (in business, growth determines success, and lack of growth indicates a recession or depression); and religious and personal freedom issues of family planning.  The most promising solution to population growth is raising the educational level of a society (especially that of women). Such a rise strongly correlates with stable populations. Education is a powerful agent of change. Can we plan for a sustainable future? Are we willing to question some of our assumptions about the future in order to do so? Are we prepared to tackle the pressing problems of today so they do not become the tragic crises of tomorrow?

February 2008

Antarctica: A Continent Devoted to Science

As the driest (less than 2 inches of precipitation per year), coldest (record of -129 degrees F), highest (average elevation 8,200 ft), and windiest (winter gales reach over 200 mph) place on Earth, Antarctica is a continent of extremes. It is covered by an ice sheet with an average thickness of about 1 mile and contains over 70% of the Earth’s fresh water. It has no trees, and no animals live there year-round (except for the Emperor Penguin – of March of the Penguins fame – which lives, feeds, and breeds on its coast). Even in summer, conditions are harsh (as I type this column, I am grounded at McMurdo Station because of 40 mph blowing snow that has reduced visibility to a few hundred yards).

What makes Antarctica truly unique, though, is that it has no permanent population, and no country has sovereignty over it. Forty-five countries, including the U.S., are signatories to the Antarctic Treaty (, which stipulates that Antarctica (about 1.5 times the size of the U.S.) can be used only for scientific research. Military pursuits, commercial development, mineral extraction, and permanent construction are prohibited. Research proposals must include environmental impact statements, pass peer review, and provide extensive plans to minimize the impact of the research on the environment. Only research that must be done or can best be done in Antarctica is supported.

During the year over 800 scientists and 2000 support staff come to Antarctica, which offers a unique window into the Earth’s oceans, atmosphere, climate, marine biology, history, and into outer space. For a list and short summary of the science being done in Antarctica, see Two ‘cool’ science projects currently being conducted there are studies of the Earth’s ancient atmosphere done by drilling mile-long ice cores that contain trapped air pockets that can be sampled to find out what the atmosphere was like in the past, and drilling into an ancient underground lake that has not had contact with the atmosphere in over one million years. I have placed an instrument in the middle of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet to measure the Earth’s magnetic field to learn about how the Sun influences the Earth’s space environment. All U.S. Antarctic research is made possible by the National Science Foundation?s United States Antarctic Program (USAP). U.S. taxpayer support for USAP amounts to less than $1 per year per American.

On behalf of the entire Antarctic science community, I thank you for your support and encourage you to learn more about the incredible science being done there. You might wish to visit Antarctica, as do about 10,000 intrepid (and wealthy) tourists every year on cruise or expedition ships.  Its mountains, glaciers, icebergs, whales, penguins, and birds will provide an incredible and memorable experience.

January 2008

Culver City Residents Can Help Tackle Global Warming

The biggest environmental and science policy issues of our time, and the topics that I am most often asked about, are climate change and global warming.  The scientific consensus is that even allowing for natural climate (long-term average weather) variations over the last 600,000 years, unprecedented, rapid changes in Earth’s climate caused by human activities have been occurring over the past century. The science behind global warming due to increased greenhouse gas emissions, the cause of these changes, is well understood. Greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide being one of the most important, act as a blanket, trapping heat from the Sun in the atmosphere and raising global temperatures. The vast majority of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere come from natural sources (volcanoes, anial respiration and digestion, and plant decay). Oceans and plant growth remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. If the amount of greenhouse gases introduced into the atmosphere is balanced by the amount removed, the Earth can have a stable climate.  But with the increasing use of fossil fuels for energy and through certain industrial practices, humans have upset this balance by dumping increasing amounts of greenhouse gases into our atmosphere. The correlation between human input of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the environment and the rise in those gases in our atmosphere is striking. Global climate models, which can reproduce past temperature changes in response to the measured amount of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, predict a range of increased global temperatures with significant implications for ice cap and glacier coverage, sea surface temperature and level, and precipitation and storm frequency. Many predicted climate effects have already been observed in glacial coverage and in the Arctic and Antarctic. Global warming will have tremendous negative impacts on ecosystems, agriculture, and humans within our lifetimes.

Former Vice President Al Gore called attention to the problem of global warming in his documentary film, ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, which won an Oscar this year.  Recently he and the United Nations body tasked with assessing our state of knowledge about the global climate won the Nobel Peace Prize. Scientists and engineers have proposed a number of technologically feasible solutions to the global warming crisis – alternative energy sources (including distributed wind, solar and geothermal energy), energy conservation (hybrid automobiles and trucks, mass transportation, energy-efficient appliances, and homes), and new agricultural and industrial processes that reduce greenhouse gas emission into the atmosphere. If the connection between greenhouse gas emissions and climate change is understood, and scientists and engineers have proposed technologically feasible solutions to decrease those emissions, why have the United States and the rest of the World not responded to this environmental and societal crisis?  Because science policy decisions are subject to economic, societal, and political considerations, as well. Most national political institutions respond to immediate crises, rather than easily predictable future disasters.

We as individuals and as a society must respond to this unprecedented global challenge. I urge you to educate yourself about how we can all reduce our energy consumption and help address global warming. One place to start is the ‘Ten Personal Solutions to Global Warming’ web page ( Actions we take in Culver City today can have immediate and lasting positive impact on our global environment.

December 2007

Science is for Everyone

Children are scientists. Every day they discover new things, experiment, explore, and ask questions about the world around them. Often, however, as they progress through the educational system, they lose their curiosity and sense of wonder, cease to question, and begin to look at science as just another difficult subject, a collection of boring and irrelevant facts. But nothing is further from the truth. Science is not a collection of facts, but a way of thinking. Everyone should understand what science is (and what it is not) because most of today’s major issues (global warming, energy, transportation, pollution, food production, food safety, medicine, etc.) rely on science for solutions. Can a democracy function properly if a group of ‘experts’ is left to make policy decisions that will impact our lives? Or should everyone be armed with basic scientific knowledge, have training in critical thinking and problem solving, and be able to make informed decisions about our future?

Parents and schools must both play a part in improving science education, and you can help, as well. Research has shown that parental attitudes about science significantly shape children’s attitudes. If boys and girls are encouraged to explore, ask questions, and experiment, they will continue to be curious about the world around them and will excel at science. Fortunately, Los Angeles is rich in institutions that foster interest in science. When did you last visit the California Natural History Museum, the California Science Center or the newly renovated Griffith Observatory? These are just some of the excellent science resources within a dozen miles of Culver City.

UCLA and the Culver City Unified School District (CCUSD) are working together to improve science education through an ongoing partnership (in which I participate) that brings students and teachers to campus and scientists and college students to schools. Our goal is to convey the creative discovery aspect of science and to provide teachers with the resources and professional development they need to bring the excitement of science into their classrooms. Although we have worked primarily with elementary school teachers and students in the past few years, we hope to expand the partnership into the middle and high schools in future.

The UCLA-CCUSD Science Education Partnership introduces students to scientists, professionals, and tradespeople from their community who use science and critical thinking skills in their careers. We are looking for creative community members interested in participating in this science partnership program. If you have a science, engineering, mathematics, technical or medical background and would like to use your expertise to bring the excitement of science into the classroom, please join us in these grand Adventures in Science.

November 2007

The Stars are out Early in Culver City

By Mark B. Moldwin, UCLA Professor of Space Physics and Culver City resident

I am sure that you have noticed that with the end of Daylight Savings Time, the Sun is now setting before 5 pm! The silver lining to this early darkness is that we now have the chance to catch a glimpse of the real stars over Hollywood even before dinner. Take this opportunity to take a deep breath, slow down, and gaze out into the vastness of space.  In addition to the Moon, which makes its monthly cycle from new (November 9) to full (November 24), the familiar and easy-to-identify winter constellations are starting to rise above the eastern horizon. These include Gemini, Orion, Taurus, and the Pleiades star cluster. The Pleiades cluster is the first to rise just at sunset, followed by the other constellations making their slow climb into the evening sky. Pleiades is called the Seven Sisters because it is a cluster of seven bright stars bunched together. They ride on the back of the constellation Taurus. Taurus, the next to rise, is shaped like a ‘V’ (the horns of a bull) with a bright red star named Aldebaran (the eye of the bull) at the apex. Chasing Taurus across the sky is the great hunter – Orion, with his distinctive belt of three bright stars in a line. Above the belt representing his shoulder is a bright red star named Betelgeuse, and below the belt marking one of his feet is a bright blue star named Rigel. The last of the familiar evening winter constellations to rise is Gemini, a pair of side-by-side bright stars, Castor and Pollux. In addition to this parade of bright stars rising in the east, during the month of November, the planet Jupiter sets in the southwest sky at sunset, and the red planet Mars rises in the east-northeast sky at around 9 pm. Another cosmic treat that is currently visible in the evening sky is a naked eye comet named 17P Holmes. It can be seen as a large ‘fuzzy’ star in the constellation Perseus in the north-east sky.

Because of urban light pollution (light beamed up into the sky from all our street lights, signs, and buildings), only a few hundred bright stars are visible on a clear night from Culver City. If you visit Joshua Tree, Death Valley or Anza-Borrego State Park, you would be able to see thousands of stars as well as the Milky Way. Light pollution is one of the sad legacies of our modern urban population centers. We are poorer for no longer being able to look up into the night sky as our ancestors did and be amazed at the full grandeur of the heavens.

 (credit: Caption: The sky visible from Culver City in mid-November at about 8 pm).