Category Archives: AAAS Annual Meeting 2011

The sights – and sounds – of AAAS


By Margaret Harris

A couple weeks ago, the blog brought you some of the sights and insights from the AAAS conference in Washington, DC. Today I’d like to bring you a few sounds as well, courtesy of Lelavision Physical Music, a dance-sculpture-music duo who formed part of the sonic backdrop to “Family Science Days” in the conference exhibit hall.

Lelavision were at the conference to perform a piece called “Accumulations of change”, which they had developed with David Lynn, an Emory University biochemist, as a way of representing the origins of life and evolution. During the actual performance, Lelavision dancer/gymnast Leah Mann was a little too busy balancing on a rotating DNA sculpture (see photo above left) to talk to me. Fortunately, I’d caught up with her earlier, when her sculptor/musician collaborator Ela Lamblin was laying down some patterns of sound to use in their performance. In the clip below, you’ll hear him in the background, making a “tink-tink” noise with the spheres shown in the photo above right.

Balancing act
An interview with Leah Mann.
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And here’s what it sounded like when everything came together.

Patterns of sound
Ela Lamblin making molecular music.
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Think Canada


By Michael Banks in Washington, DC

The temperatures have been mild here at in Washington DC for the 2011 American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting. But according to the latest forecast the snow is on it way just as delegates are heading off home.

The AAAS was jampacked with interesting talks. We had sessions on the search for exoplanets, storing antimatter, first physics at the Large Hadron Collider, an outline of the MESSENGER mission to Mercury, detecting traces of nuclear materials, the effect a nuclear war could have on the climate, and talks on adaptive optics. Even this breathless list only represents a tiny fraction of the complete programme of the 2011 AAAS conference.

The thing that caught my attention when I first entered the Washington Convention Center, which held the 2011 AAAS, was the big red “Think Canada” badges some people were wearing. I was slightly confused in the beginning, but their purpose quickly became apparent that it was to publicise the next AAAS conference.

That meeting will be in Vancouver, Canada, from 16 to 20 February 2012, so see you there (together with my pair of big red mittens).

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Global challenges for science

Chris Llewellyn Smith speaking to delegates

By Michael Banks in Washington, DC

The 2011 American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Washington, DC had a slight winding-down feel to it today as the placards were being removed and the exhibitors packed their stalls.

But there was still a morning of talks to be had. So I headed to a session entitled “Can global science solve global challenges?” where Chris Llewellyn Smith spoke about past and future global science projects. He is an ideal speaker for the topic, given that he has been director-general of the CERN particle-physics lab and also served as chairman of the ITER council – the experimental fusion facility currently being constructed in Cadarache, France.

Llewellyn Smith went through some of the successes of global collaboration and consensus such as the eradication of smallpox in 1979 and the banning of CFCs in 1987, which successfully reduced the ozone hole.

The particle physicist also named a few examples of global collaborations that he felt had failed. This included scientists who were warning that a tsunami could occur in the Indian Ocean. The tsunami happened in 2004 killing 230,000 people and Llewellyn Smith says that lives could have been saved if warnings from scientists around the world had been heeded. He also adds communicating climate change as a challenging area that was damaged by scientists “not keeping objectivity and turning to advocacy”;.

Llewellyn Smith now calls for a global endeavour to be set up for the application of carbon capture and storage (CCS) to coal power stations that would include working out if the technique is at all possible and, if so, then the best way to store carbon dioxide underground. “CCS is going to be crucial if we don’t stop burning coal,” he says.

Indeed, Llewellyn Smith is involved with a Royal Society report into global science, which will be released on 29 March. He didn’t want to give the report’s conclusions away but says the report will concern “where science is happening and who is working with who”. There will be no specific recommendations made in the report but “we hope that it will start a debate” he says.

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Freebies galore

Conference collectables

By Michael Banks in Washington, DC

No conference trip is complete without hoarding freebies from exhibitor stands.

So above is the result of my 30-minute sweep through the exhibition hall at the 2011 American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting here in Washington, DC.

Kudos to the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore who were providing USB hubs to conference goers (bottom left item in the image above). No expense spared there.

The AAAS yo-yo was a particular hit with delegates, with many people walking through the exhibition doing yo-yo tricks. The strangest item has to be the EurekAlert! sticky brain – not sure what I am going to do with that.

My favourite freebie has to be the big red “Canada” mittens. Next year’s AAAS conference is in Vancouver, Canada, so they just might come in handy then.

Gateway to conference freebies

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Carbon concerns

How much carbon is coming out?

By Michael Banks in Washington, DC

“Carbon is the most important element, but we are deeply ignorant of its effect on the Earth,” says Robert Hazen from the Carnegie Institution of Washington.

Hazen is the principal investigator of the deep carbon observatory – a 10-year programme funded by the Alfred Sloan Foundation to better understand the Earth’s carbon cycle.

It’s a wide-ranging study and speaking at the 2011 American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Washington, DC, Hazen spelled out the many questions that remain unanswered about carbon. These include how much of the element is stored in the Earth, especially in the core, and how much of the material is released when a volcano erupts.

In the case of a volcanic eruption, Hazen says some scientists conclude carbon makes up around 2% of the material ejected, while others say it is more like 75% – a big discrepancy that the programme will hope to reduce.

The programme only started in 2009 so Hazen is issuing a call to arms for scientists of different backgrounds to come together and join the project.

You will have to be quick as proposals for research activities must be submitted by 11 March.

Read more about the programme here.

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Eye-catching exhibits

Science on a sphere

By Margaret Harris in Washington, DC

No trip to the AAAS meeting would be complete without a tour of the exhibit hall, which for the past two days has been buzzing with visitors to “Family Science Days”, a public outreach-oriented event running in parallel with the more technical seminars.

One of the most eye-catching exhibits was the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Science on a Sphere, which pretty much does what it says on the tin. The Sphere is the brainchild of Alexander McDonald, director of NOAA’s Earth Systems Research Laboratory, and there are now over 250 datasets that can be displayed on it. In this photo, it’s illustrating the shock waves that spread around the globe after the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004, but I also saw depictions of ocean currents, aeroplane flight paths, global temperatures and the past week’s weather. According to exhibitor Jana Goldman, there’s even one in a science fiction museum in Seattle, Washington that displays the (hypothetical) features of a (fictional) alien planet – so it’s definitely a versatile beast!

Another exhibit that got a lot of traffic was the US Department of Energy’s set of bicycle-powered light bulbs, which is designed to teach kids (and maybe some adults) about the differences between voltage and current, and to demonstrate in a very physical way how much power it takes to light up an incandescent 50 W bulb compared with fluorescent and LED bulbs. The young gentleman in this photo, for example, was having real trouble getting the incandescent bulb to give off any light, but despite being a little too short for the pedals, he managed the LED bulb just fine.

Bicycle-powered light bulbs

For the bigger kids, exhibitor Steve Eckstrand keeps a 12 V, 300 W hairdryer on hand. “They can usually get the 50 W bulb working just fine, and one girl did manage to pedal hard enough to get a faint glow out of the 100 W bulb,” he says. “But nobody can do more than get the hairdryer sort of gently warm.”

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LHC ready for new physics

By Michael Banks in Washington, DC

If you are reading this blog in the hope that physicists at CERN have announced the discovery of new physics at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) then you may be a little disappointed.

At a session this morning at the 2011 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, CERN researchers reflected on the past year of LHC data.

The bottom line is that the LHC has taken enough measurements to verify the Standard Model of particle physics and is now on the verge of searching for new physics.

“We are opening a door to a new landscape, starting an exploration in physics for the next 20 years.” was one of the take-home soundbites from the opening talk given by Felicitas Pauss, head of international relations at CERN.

One area of research at CERN is whether quarks – the building blocks of particles such as protons and neutrons – have any substructure.

Thomas LeCompte, from Argonne National Laboratory, told delegates that the ATLAS detector at the LHC had so far not yet spotted any evidence for quark substructure. But the emphasis is on the “yet”. CERN researchers are continously narrowing down the search.

LeCompte used a nice analogy to describe the LHC’s current limit. “If an atom is the size of an Earth, then we have not seen any evidence of substructure down to the relative size of a pea,” he says.

Indeed, LeCompte says that over the next few years, the search will narrow down to the order of a “single hundreds and thousands sprinkle”. Quite a feat.

Likewise, CERN researcher Joe Incandela noted that the CMS detector has not yet found any evidence for supersymmetry, which predicts that each fermion has a partner boson and each boson has a partner fermion – that are all known as “sparticles”. Again the emphasis is on the yet: “In 2011 we will have more than 50 times the data we have now,” he says.

Monica Pepe Altarelli from the LHCb experiment told delegates about the hunt for the a rare B-meson decay (into a muon and antimuon), which other experiments such as CDF and D0 detectors at Fermilab have searched for but not yet seen.

Altarelli notes that even with the LHC’s limited run, the collider will have recorded the production of more B-mesons than the Fermilab accelerator has managed in its whole lifetime. Altarelli also says the collaboration will publish some results in the coming days but by the end of this year they should have enough statistics to probably see glimpses of the event.

The final slide Pauss flashed up on the screen in her summary talk was an image of the Particle Physics Booklet that is published by the Institute of Physics Publishing, which owns

Pauss wondered if by the end of 2011 we will need to publish another separate book – the “sparticle physics booklet”. CERN physicists will certainly be hoping so.

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A fun way of learning lab safety


By Margaret Harris

As a veteran of many stupendously boring – but mandatory – safety training sessions, I was initially tempted to give a wide berth to a booth in the AAAS exhibit hall on lab safety.

However, two things persuaded me to linger at this particular kiosk, which had been set up by the National Institute of Health (NIH) Division of Occupational Health and Safety. One was a statistic related to me by Kersten Haskell, a science communicator at the NIH. “We have a lot of students who come into NIH labs as interns in the summer, and what we found was that of all the injuries that were happening during that time, around 75% were to students,” she said. “So we figured we had to find a way to train them better.”

The NIH’s solution to this problem was to put essential elements of safety training into a video game. This brings me to my second reason for stopping: the row of monitors displaying scenes from the Safe Techniques Advance Research – Laboratory Interactive Training Environment (STAR-LITE). This visually appealing, easy-to-use game allows students (and visiting journalists) to guide avatars through typical lab-safety situations, solving problems and receiving points (or injuries) in the process – and I couldn’t resist giving it a quick test.

The game is clearly designed with health research in mind. In fact, it’s dedicated to the memory of a biology student, Beth Griffin, who died after contracting the rare macaque-borne B virus in a laboratory. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find that many of the hazards addressed in the game could apply equally well to physics. For example, my avatar spent a happy five minutes securing gas bottles and labelling hazardous chemicals (something I did many times while working in real-life physics labs) before I reluctantly turned the game back over to Haskell and her colleagues.

STAR-LITE is principally aimed at secondary-school students and new undergraduates, but if anyone wants to have a go, it’s free to download – and it’s a heck of an improvement over the grainy videos from the 1980s that made up the backbone of my own safety training.

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Watching out for space weather

By Michael Banks in Washington, DC

Last week a hiccup from the Sun resulted in travel misery. Flights that were due to travel over the poles had to be rerouted when material from a solar flare was expected to impact on the Earth’s magnetosphere.

The result would be a geomagnetic storm and the airlines couldn’t risk their craft suffering electrical interference that the storm – the strongest for four years – would bring. It resulted in frustrated passengers and added costs for airlines.

You probably do not think that space weather would affect your daily life, but a huge coronal mass ejection (CME) from the Sun would have untold consequences on Earth, potentially damaging electrical transmission lines that would result in power outages.

A CME releases a plasma of electrons and protons into space and the shock wave of the traveling plasma causes a geomagnetic storm.

Today at the 2011 annual American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Washington, DC a panel of distinguished scientists spoke about the effects of space weather and what to do to mitigate its effects.

Jane Lubchenco, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, told delegates that space weather is a “serious concern”. “We are going to be seeing more space weather”, says Lubchenco. “10 years ago the world was a different place, fewer aircraft were flying, now space weather is everyone’s business.”

John Beddington, chief scientific adviser to the UK government, said that countries need to invest in “predication facilities” and learn how to characterize space weather better so when it does arrives we know how to deal with it.

Unfortunately, mitigation at the moment mostly means turning off transformers until the storm passes. This would mean a temporary blackout. However, the alternative is the possible destruction of infrastructure that would take years to replace.

As Lubchenco noted about future solar storms: “it’s not a matter of if, but when and by how much.”

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Hunting for exomoons

Planet hunter Alan Boss from the Carnegie Institution in Washington (courtesy: the University of Virginia)

By Michael Banks in Washington, DC

Could NASA’s Kepler mission be able to spot the first moon outside our solar system? Astronomer Alan Boss from the Carnegie Institution in Washington thinks so.

Sitting down for a chat today at the 2011 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, Boss told me that evidence of an exomoon could be buried in Kepler data.

Kepler is designed to study exoplanets – planets outside our solar system – and in particular planets that have a similar size to Earth. It has so far found around 1235 planet candidates since its launch in March 2009.

Boss says finding a moon would be difficult but not impossible. “If a large enough gas planet is found it may have an Earth-sized moon and that could be potentially seen in the Kepler data,” says Boss. “I am sure folks are combing through the data looking for signs.”

I also asked Boss about naming planets. Currently they are named after the craft that found them, such as Kepler 9b, CoRoT-7b etc, so is the time right to start a more robust classification for naming them?

“I think astronomers are quite comfortable naming them Kepler b, Kepler c etc,” says Boss. “But that doesn’t mean that a creative astronomer who wants to call a planet Cleopatra shouldn’t do that.”

Look out for an upcoming audio interview with Boss on about the search for exoplanets with Kepler.

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