It's Not CGI…
Dec19

It's Not CGI…

It is, in a word: awesome. Scientists have for the first time captured on video a deep undersea volcano in mid-eruption: Magma explosions video Closeup of magma explosions Nearly 4000 feet below the ocean's surface, the volcano West Mata, located in the Pacific Ocean near Tonga and Fiji, has rocked scientists and public alike with its spectacular display of fire bursts, molten lava, and billowing sulfur “smoke.” Scientists have spent decades in a fruitless pursuit of these oceanic fireworks—rushing to likely sites only to find that the event had already happened—but last May, they got lucky. “This is historic,” said Joseph Resing, a chemical oceanographer with the University of Washington, said December 17 at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco, where the video was unveiled. “We haven't seen new ocean crust being made before.” In a joint project with National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Science Foundation, scientists have been monitoring the area. When they detected plumes of hydrogen impregnated water, laden with bits of volcanic class, near the site, they knew an eruption was imminent. They deployed Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution's undersea robotic craft JASON to film the eruption. “We saw red hot molten lava being blown like bubble gum,” Resing described. More than just a visual stunner, however, the event is also a scientific boon for ocean scientists. The eruption produced fresh samples of the water-laden mineral boninite—a substance that until now, had only been found in ancient rock samples. “Knowing the date of the eruptions gives us the ability to study aspects of the chemistry of the rock, such as radioactive tracers,” said Kenneth H. Rubin, geology professor at the University of Hawaii. The group is also studying thermophilic microbes and shrimp found thriving near the...

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Titan On The Rocks, With A Twist Of Hydrocarbons
Jun16

Titan On The Rocks, With A Twist Of Hydrocarbons

My first glimpse of the surface of Saturn's giant moon, Titan, sent from the Cassini mission's Huygens lander in 2004, blew my mind-- not because it looked so exotic, but because it looked so much like Earth. There they were: channels and debris flows, on a moon nearly a billion miles away. This Earthly verisimilitude has an incredibly cool twist, of course. Titan's climate generally hovers around 93 Kelvin, so frozen water ice assumes the roles of silica-based rocks, pebbles, and boulders on Earth, while liquid methane and ethane act like water. And that raises an interesting question. When rocks and stream beds are made up of water ice, how quickly do they erode? On Earth, or even Mars, the rate of erosion—the impacts as particles whack against a larger surface--is a function of rock tensile strength and elasticity. But ice is not your ordinary solid. A few weeks ago, on a tip from my geomorphologist pal Jill Marshall, I headed out to UC Berkeley's Richmond Field Station in Richmond, Calif., where researchers were addressing that question in a phone-booth-sized freezer, by pelting a two-foot-diameter ice disk with ice rocks, under Titanesque conditions. Peter Polito, a master's student in the lab of San Francisco State University geology professor Leonard Sklar, was gathering data in a mad rush before defending his thesis. This involved dropping an object on the ice thousands of times to simulate the erosion of bedrock. They were recording the volume of ice knocked off during the impacts using a laser scanning technique that measures small changes in the ice disk topography. Peter's colleague Beth Zygielbaum, also a master's student in the Sklar lab, is examining how this tensile strength changes with temperature. Creating a bit of Titan on Earth takes some preparation. The group had already discovered they couldn't just freeze a giant ice cube. In order to create a realistic sort of polycrystalline ice “sandstone,” the group ground up ice in a Sno Kone machine, and added nearly freezing water. To keep the ice at 93 Kelvin, the disk is surrounded by dry ice and iquid nitrogen snaking around the perimeter of the ice through copper tubing. The enclosed setup can be treacherous, since oxygen is in short supply, what with all that dry ice and liquid nitrogen. There's a reason Peter makes sure to have assistants. The day I showed up, unfortunately, the data-taking was on hold while Peter and his lab partners for the day–his wife Elizabeth Polito, and Kimberly L. Litwin, also master's students in Sklar's lab who will continue work on the project--were awaiting the delivery of 1000 liters of liquid...

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“Moore’s Law On Steroids” Or, A Genomics Whirlwind In Two Keynotes
Mar31

“Moore’s Law On Steroids” Or, A Genomics Whirlwind In Two Keynotes

One of genomics' venerable visionaries, Harvard genetics professor George M. Church, amused attendees at the fourth annual meeting of the DOE’s Joint Genome Institute in Walnut Creek, Calif., last week, with a photo of a purchase order from his lab in 1980, for a couple of DNA snippets 10 base pairs long, costing $6,000 a pop. Nowadays, he pointed out, “$500 will give you 15 million base pairs.” During his keynote, Church breezed through the highlights of his stunning career, and the equally stunning progress of the genomics field, dubbing the ever-accelerating speed at which genomic sequences can be decoded “Moore’s law on steroids.” As a graduate student in 1978, Church synthesized the first artificial plasmid, which contained only 4.6 kilobases. By contrast, his lab announced last year--somewhat unconventionally, before peer review--that they’d assembled the first artificial ribosome. Back in 1984, Church helped develop the first method for genomic sequencing, and initiated the human genome project. Recently, he discovered organisms that thrive on antibiotics  . But clearly Church’s pet venture is the Personal Genome Project , which he launched in 2006. Volunteers, of whom Church is one, allow their genomic, medical and environmental information to be made public, facilitating research on personalized medicine. Last week, the project was expanded from 10 volunteers to 100,000. Within two days, 10,000 volunteers had lined up for entrance exams. “But we need more,” Church said. Another genomics star, Craig Venter, also held forth at JGI, taking the audience on a virtual whirlwind tour of the research at his facility in La Jolla, the J. Craig Venter Institute, from the cultivation of microbes that turn coal into methane, to the conversion of one bacterial species to another. The former Celera Genomics founder and president also just launched a new leg of his oceanic microbe-mining project, the Global Ocean Sampling Expedition. The research vessel, Venter’s own 95-foot yacht, the Sorcerer II  set sail March 19, from San Diego’s Shelter Island Marina. Microbes are the future of new gene discovery, Venter said. “If you’re looking for new mammalian genes, stop. They’ve basically all been...

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It’s A Mess, But It’s Still Mine
Feb20

It’s A Mess, But It’s Still Mine

In 2001, the University of Texas, San Antonio, swept through and swept out tenured organic chemistry professor Philip L. Stotter’s lab and office, which by all accounts--even Stotter’s--were overflowing with chemicals and papers. Then the university fired him. But after six years in and out of court, Stotter, now 66 and a part-time consultant, is enjoying some vindication. Last week, a federal court jury awarded him $175,000, agreeing with Stotter that the university--specifically former UTSA provost Guy Bailey--didn’t give him proper notice before removing the lab and office contents. Though Stotter himself wasn’t available to talk to C&EN, his attorney, Regina Bacon Criswell, says they’re both pleased. “We’re happy,” she says. “It sends a clear message that [the university] needs to take into account everybody’s rights.” Bailey, who is now president of Texas Tech University in Lubbock, wasn’t available to comment. Judith A. Walmsley, chemistry professor at UTSA, who was chair of the department during Stotter’s firing, also declined to speak with C&EN. Stotter’s troubles with UTSA had been brewing for years, according to observers, with the university becoming increasingly exasperated by Stotter’s unsafe clutter, which included thousands of chemicals and hundreds of boxes of books and journals. Finally, in January 2001, the university sent Stotter a certified letter, bearing Bailey’s signature, giving Stotter a deadline to gather up his belongings. That deadline passed, and UTSA dispatched a hazmat team to dispose of the chemicals, and Stotter’s notebooks were carted away. Stotter received the letter two days later. Later that year, UTSA regents voted to terminate him. Stotter sued UTSA. Though the courts eventually dismissed most of his claims, they agreed to let him sue Bailey. When--and if--Stotter gets his money will depend on whether Bailey files an appeal. In the meantime, there’s still the matter of Stotter’s missing notebooks. “They don’t even know where they are anymore,” Criswell says. “Probably in some room somewhere.” James A. Kaufman, president and CEO of the Laboratory Safety Institute (LSI), a nonprofit that promotes, as the name implies, lab safety, weighs both sides of the issue, noting that while he thinks employees shouldn’t have “unlimited license” to run an unsafe operation, “at the same time, the employer needs to follow a fair process.” Perhaps the players in the Stotter case could have avoided some headaches if they’d had the chance to attend LSI’s “Leadership in Safety,” a three-hour web seminar for university administrators. The seminar, set for February 27, aims to help administrators understand their “critical role in creating a more effective campus-wide environmental health and safety program.” At $149 a head, it’s a lot cheaper than going to...

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