Observations of Non-Credentialed Citizens Add to “Scientific” Knowledge

(p. D5) In 1811, a 12-year-old girl named Mary Anning discovered a fossil on the beach near her home in southwestern England — the first scientifically identified specimen of an ichthyosaur, a dolphin-like, ocean-dwelling reptile from the time of the dinosaurs. Two centuries later, less than 50 miles away, an 11-year-old girl named Ruby Reynolds found a fossil from another ichthyosaur. It appears to be the largest marine reptile known to science.

Ms. Reynolds, now 15, and her father, Justin Reynolds, have been fossil hunting for 12 years near their home in Braunton, England. On a family outing in May 2020 to the village of Blue Anchor along the estuary of the River Severn, they came across a piece of fossilized bone set on a rock.

“We were both excited as we had never found a piece of fossilized bone as big as this before,” Mr. Reynolds said. His daughter kept searching the beach, he added, “and it wasn’t long before she found another much larger piece of bone.”

They took home the fragments of bone, the largest of which was about eight inches long, and began their research. A 2018 paper provided a hint at what they’d found: In nearby Lilstock, fossil hunters had discovered similar bone fragments, hypothesized to be part of the jaw bone of a massive ichthyosaur that lived roughly 202 million years ago. However, the scientists who’d worked on the Lilstock fossil had deemed that specimen too incomplete to designate a new species.

Mr. Reynolds contacted those researchers: Dean Lomax, at the University of Bristol, and Paul de la Salle, an amateur fossil collector. They joined the Reynolds family on collecting trips in Blue Anchor, digging in the mud with shovels. Ultimately, they found roughly half of a bone that they estimate would have been more than seven feet long when complete.

. . .

Dr. Lomax said that this discovery also highlighted the importance of amateur fossil collectors. “If you have a keen eye, if you have a passion for something like that, you can make discoveries like this,” he said.

Ruby Reynolds said: “I didn’t realize when I first found the piece of ichthyosaur bone how important it was and what it would lead to. I think the role that young people can play in science is to enjoy the journey of exploring as you never know where a discovery may take you.”

For the full story see:

Kate Golembiewski. “Huge Ocean Reptile From Dinosaur Days.” The New York Times (Tuesday, April 30, 2024): D5.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date April 17, 2024, and has the title “An 11-Year-Old Girl’s Fossil Find Is the Largest Known Ocean Reptile.” Where there is a difference in wording between the versions, the passages quoted above follow the online version.)

Lomax co-authored an article with Justin Reynolds and Ruby Reynolds that described and named the huge ocean reptile:

Lomax, Dean R., Paul de la Salle, Marcello Perillo, Justin Reynolds, Ruby Reynolds, and James F. Waldron. “The Last Giants: New Evidence for Giant Late Triassic (Rhaetian) Ichthyosaurs from the UK.” PLOS ONE 19, no. 4 (2024): e0300289.

Economical Parrots Decline an Immediate Smaller Treat to Be Able to Trade a Token for a Bigger Treat

(p. D3) Chalk up another achievement for parrots, . . . .

Anastasia Krasheninnikova and colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Germany tested four species of parrots in an experiment that required trading tokens for food and recently reported their findings in the journal Scientific Reports.

. . .

A metal hoop could be traded for a piece of dry corn, the lowest value food, a metal bracket for a medium value sunflower seed and a plastic ring for the highest value food, a piece of shelled walnut.

The birds were then offered various choices, like a piece of corn or the ring. They all reliably chose to forgo the corn and take the ring. Then they were able to trade the ring for a piece of walnut.

They also did well choosing a bracket instead of the corn, and in other situations where the token was of higher value than the food.

For the full story see:

James Gorman. “Parrots Think They’re Pretty Smart.” The New York Times (Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2018 [sic]): D3.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the same date as the print version, and has the title “Parrots Think They’re So Smart. Now They’re Bartering Tokens for Food.” Where there is a small difference in wording between the versions, the passages quoted above follow the online version.)

The paper published in Scientific Reports and mentioned above is:

Krasheninnikova, Anastasia, Friederike Höner, Laurie O’Neill, Elisabetta Penna, and Auguste M. P. von Bayern. “Economic Decision-Making in Parrots.” Scientific Reports 8, no. 1 (2018): 12537.

Repeated Interbreeding of Brown Bears and Polar Bears Illustrates Fuzziness of Defining a Species

(p. D1) Naturalists have been trying for centuries to catalog all of the species on Earth, and the effort remains one of the great unfinished jobs in science. So far, researchers have named about 2.3 million species, but there are millions — perhaps even billions — left to be discovered.

As if this quest isn’t hard enough, biologists cannot agree on what a species is. A 2021 survey found that practicing biologists used 16 different approaches to categorizing species. Any two of the scientists picked at random were overwhelmingly likely to use different ones.

“Everyone uses the term, but no one knows what it is,” said Michal Grabowski, a biologist at the University of Lodz in Poland.

The debate over species is more than an academic pastime. In the current extinction crisis, scientists urgently need to take stock of the world’s biological diversity.

. . .

(p. D4) As scientists gather more genetic data, fresh questions are emerging about what seem, on the surface, to be obviously separate species.

You don’t have to be a mammalogist to understand that polar bears and brown bears are different. Just one look at their white and brown coats will do.

The difference in their colors is the result of their ecological adaptations. White polar bears blend into their Arctic habitats, where they hunt for seals and other prey. Brown bears adapted for life on land further south. The differences are so distinct that paleontologists can distinguish fossils of the two species going back hundreds of thousands of years.

And yet the DNA inside those ancient bones is revealing an astonishing history of interbreeding between polar bears and brown bears. After the two lineages split about half a million years ago, they exchanged DNA for thousands of years. They then became more distinct, but about 120,000 years ago they underwent another extraordinary exchange of genes.

Between 25,000 and 10,000 years ago, the bears interbred in several parts of their range. The exchanges have left a significant imprint on bears today: About 10 percent of the DNA in brown bears comes from polar bears.

Beth Shapiro, a paleogeneticist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, said that the interbreeding most likely occurred when swings in the climate forced polar bears down from the Arctic and into brown bear territory.

For the full story see:

Carl Zimmer. “Defining A Species Is Open To Debate.” The New York Times (Tuesday, February 20, 2024): D1 & D4.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date February 19, 2024, and has the title “What Is a Species, Anyway?”)

The 2021 survey mentioned above was more fully detailed in:

Stankowski, Sean, and Mark Ravinet. “Quantifying the Use of Species Concepts.” Current Biology 31, no. 9 (May 10, 2021): R428-R429.

Low Water Level of Panama Canal Due to El Niño, Not Due to Global Warming

(p. D5) The recent drought in the Panama Canal was driven not by global warming but by below-normal rainfall linked to the natural climate cycle El Niño, an international team of scientists has concluded.

. . .

The scientists found that scant rain, not high temperatures that cause more water to evaporate, was the main reason for low water in the canal’s reservoirs. The weather records suggest that wet-season rainfall in Panama has decreased modestly in recent decades. But the models don’t indicate that human-induced climate change is the driver.

“We’re not sure what is causing that slight drying trend, or whether it’s an anomaly, or some other factor that we haven’t taken into account,” said Clair Barnes, a climate researcher at Imperial College London who worked on the analysis. “Future trends in a warming climate are also uncertain.”

El Niño, by contrast, is much more clearly linked with below-average rainfall in the area, the scientists found. In any given El Niño year, there’s a 5 percent chance that rainfall there will be as low as it was in 2023, they estimated.

For the full story see:

Raymond Zhong. “Study Acquits Global Warming in Drought at Panama Canal.” The New York Times (Thursday, May 2, 2024): A9.

(Note: bracketed date added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date May 1, 2024, and has the title “Drought That Snarled Panama Canal Was Linked to El Niño, Study Finds.”)

The report co-authored by Clair Barnes and mentioned above is:

Barnes, Claire, Steve Paton, RF Stallard, H De Lima, B Clarke, M Vahlberg, S Sivanu, A Amakona, K Izquierdo, F Otto, M Zachariah, S Philip, M Mistry, R Singh, and J Arrighi. “Low Water Levels in Panama Canal Due to Increasing Demand Exacerbated by El Niño Event.” In World Weather Attribution Report, May 1, 2024.

Volcanoes Are Proof of Concept That Geoengineering Can Counter Global Warming

(p. C11) ‘Volcanoes get a bad press,” Clive Oppenheimer writes at the beginning of “Mountains of Fire: The Menace, Meaning, and Magic of Volcanoes.”

. . .

Most people know that erupting volcanoes can affect the climate. But there are nuances: “You might expect that volcanoes, with burning flames, spewing molten hot lava and searing ash, would heat up the planet, but in fact they do the opposite.” An addendum, also counterintuitive: “Though several factors . . . influence how much an eruption cools the climate, it is the amount of sulphur blasted into the stratosphere that is critical.”

. . .

. . ., Mr. Oppenheimer’s scientific expertise is what’s most important—for his book and for the rest of us.

For the full review, see:

Howard Schneider. “Explorer of the Underworld.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023): C11.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date October 6, 2023, and has the title “‘Mountains of Fire’ Review: The Vital Volcano.”)

The book under review is:

Oppenheimer, Clive. Mountains of Fire: The Menace, Meaning, and Magic of Volcanoes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2023.

In Australia and Japan “Coral Appear to Be Migrating Poleward”

(p. A9) Scientists are still learning about corals’ ability to adapt to climate change. Efforts are underway to breed coral that tolerate higher temperatures. In a few places, including Australia and Japan, coral appear to be migrating poleward, beginning to occupy new places.

For the full story see:

Catrin Einhorn. “Scientists Say Rising Ocean Temperatures Are Damaging Coral Reefs Around the World.” The New York Times (Tuesday, April 16, 2024): A9.

(Note: the online version of the story has the date April 15, 2024, and has the title “The Widest-Ever Global Coral Crisis Will Hit Within Weeks, Scientists Say.”)

Carbon Dioxide Greens the Earth as Plants Slow Global Warming

(p. D3) For decades, scientists have been trying to figure out what all the carbon dioxide we have been putting into the atmosphere has been doing to plants. It turns out that the best place to find an answer is where no plants can survive: the icy wastes of Antarctica.

As ice forms in Antarctica, it traps air bubbles. For thousands of years, they have preserved samples of the atmosphere. The levels of one chemical in that mix reveal the global growth of plants at any point in that history.

“It’s the whole Earth — it’s every plant,” said J. Elliott Campbell of the University of California, Merced.

Analyzing the ice, Dr. Campbell and his colleagues have discovered that in the last century, plants have been growing at a rate far faster than at any other time in the last 54,000 years. Writing in the journal Nature, they report that plants are converting 31 percent more carbon dioxide into organic matter than they were before the Industrial Revolution.

. . .

Since plants depend on carbon dioxide to grow, scientists have long wondered if that extra gas might fertilize them.

. . .

In the mid-2000s, atmospheric scientists discovered a powerful new way to measure plant growth: by studying an unimaginably rare molecule called carbonyl sulfide.

Carbonyl sulfide — a molecule made of a carbon atom, a sulfur atom and an oxygen atom — is present only in a few hundred parts per trillion in the atmosphere. That is about a million times lower than the concentration of carbon dioxide. Decaying organic matter in the ocean produces carbonyl sulfide, a gas that then floats into the atmosphere.

Plants draw in carbonyl sulfide along with carbon dioxide. As soon as it enters their tissues, they destroy it. As a result, the level of carbonyl sulfide in the air drops as plants grow.

. . .

But Dr. Campbell and his colleagues found that it hasn’t increased very much. As we have been adding carbonyl sulfide to the atmosphere, plants have been pulling it out. In fact, the scientists found, they have been pulling it out at a staggering rate.

“The pace of change in photosynthesis is unprecedented in the 54,000-year record,” Dr. Campbell said. While photosynthesis increased at the end of the ice age, he said, the current rate is 136 times as fast.

With all that extra carbon dioxide going into plants, there has been less in the air to contribute to global warming. The planet has warmed nearly 2 degrees Fahrenheit since 1880, but it might be even hotter if not for the greening of the Earth.

For the full commentary, see:

Carl Zimmer. “MATTER; A Global Greening.” The New York Times (Tuesday, April 11, 2017 [sic]): D3.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date April 5, 2017 [sic], and has the title “MATTER; Antarctic Ice Reveals Earth’s Accelerating Plant Growth.”)

The paper in Nature mentioned above is:

Campbell, J. E., J. A. Berry, U. Seibt, S. J. Smith, S. A. Montzka, T. Launois, S. Belviso, L. Bopp, and M. Laine. “Large Historical Growth in Global Terrestrial Gross Primary Production.” Nature 544, no. 7648 (April 16, 2017 [sic]): 84-87.

Edgar Allen Poe Said Intuitive Leaps Should Be Added to Deduction and Induction as Paths to Knowledge

(p. C7) In an 1848 lecture, Edgar Allan Poe—the “Raven” guy, the progenitor of detective stories and spooky science fiction, who married his 13-year-old cousin, and died after being found insensibly drunk and wearing (somehow the most unsettling detail of all) another man’s clothes—this ink-stained wretch described a startling number of what would turn out to be prominent features of modern cosmology, including the big bang, the big crunch and the unity of space-time.

. . .

Where Poe sent audiences winging around the universe (or multiverse, another concept he seems to have anticipated), Mr. Tresch keeps to a steady course. He approaches Poe’s uncanny lecture—and its published version, the prose poem “Eureka”—not as a crazy fever dream, but as an inspired series of leaps from a firm grounding in fact.

. . .

In his lecture on the universe, Poe turned this method upside down: Here he used fiction in the service of science. He began by citing a letter, purportedly written in 2848, that mocked the primitive methods of 1848, when overconfident scientists believed that deduction and induction were the only paths to knowledge. Intuitive leaps, Poe insisted, could yield insights of their own. One such “soul-reverie” led him to argue that the universe began when “a primordial Particle” erupted outward in every direction. Everything that has happened since then is the result of the interplay of “the two Principles Proper, Attraction and Repulsion.” So far, so reasonable, by the lights of 21st-century cosmology. Still, plenty of what Poe went on to assert is either flatly wrong, ludicrously wrong, or outside the realm of cosmology properly defined, e.g., his suggestion that if there are multiple universes, each might have its own god.

“The Raven,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Pit and the Pendulum”: As far as Poe was concerned, these gloomy triumphs of his imagination—all the poems and short stories that have made him immortal—counted for less than his cosmic speculations, which he considered the pinnacle of his career. “I could accomplish nothing more since I have written Eureka,” he told his mother-in-law/aunt. So imagine his dismay when, after requesting a print run of 50,000 copies, his publisher granted him only 500, and even these didn’t sell. A year later, Poe would spend a calamitous day and night in Baltimore, drinking himself to oblivion. He died at 40.

Had he lived, he would have found it ever more difficult to “revolutionize the world of Physical & Metaphysical Science.” Mr. Tresch, who teaches at the Warburg Institute at the University of London and has previously written about Romanticism and science in 19th-century France, shows that the last years of Poe’s life coincided with increased regimentation in American thought. New organizations such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science began applying rigorous standards to scientific discourse. “Eureka” was “precisely the kind of publicly oriented, freewheeling, generalizing, idiosyncratic, and unlicensed speculation that the AAAS was created to exclude,” he writes.

For the full review, see:

Jeremy McCarter. “Mystery, Science, Theater.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, June 12, 2021 [sic]): C7.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review was updated June 11, 2021 [sic], and has the title “‘The Reason for the Darkness of the Night’ Review: Poe’s Eureka Moment.” In the online and print versions, the words “Attraction,” “Repulsion,” and “Eureka” in Poe quotes appear in italics.)

The book under review is:

Tresch, John. The Reason for the Darkness of the Night: Edgar Allan Poe and the Forging of American Science. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021.

Researchers and Entrepreneurs Experiment with Once-Taboo Geoengineering Projects to Reverse Global Warming

(p. A3) Dumping chemicals in the ocean? Spraying saltwater into clouds? Injecting reflective particles into the sky? . . .

These geoengineering approaches were once considered taboo by scientists and regulators who feared that tinkering with the environment could have unintended consequences, but now researchers are receiving taxpayer funds and private investments to get out of the lab and test these methods outdoors.

. . .

In Israel, a startup called Stardust Solutions has begun testing a system to disperse a cloud of tiny reflective particles about 60,000 feet in altitude, reflecting sunlight away from Earth to cool the atmosphere in a concept known as solar radiation management, or SRM. Yanai Yedvab, Stardust chief executive and a former deputy chief scientist at the Israel Atomic Energy Commission, wouldn’t disclose the composition of the proprietary particles.

Yedvab said Stardust has raised $15 million from two investors and has conducted low-level aerial tests using white smoke to simulate the particles’ path in the atmosphere. After the company completes indoor safety testing, it intends to conduct a limited outdoor test of the dispersion technology, monitoring devices and particles in the next few months, Yedvab said.

. . .

Experiments aimed at cooling the atmosphere by reflecting sunlight away from Earth are an attempt to mimic what happens when a volcano erupts. In 1991, Mount Pinatubo, an active volcano in the Philippines, spewed sulfur and ash into the upper atmosphere, lowering the Earth’s temperature by .5 degrees Celsius (.9 degrees Fahrenheit) for an entire year.

For the full story, see:

Eric Niiler. “New Experiments Aim to Cool Planet.” The Wall Street Journal (Thursday, February 15, 2024): A3.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date February 14, 2024, and has the title “Scientists Resort to Once-Unthinkable Solutions to Cool the Planet.” The online version says that the title of the print version was also “Scientists Resort to Once-Unthinkable Solutions to Cool the Planet.” But my print version has the title “New Experiments Aim to Cool Planet.”)

Isaacson Reprises His Themes of “Science, Genius, Experiment, Code, Thinking Different” in Book on CRISPR

(p. 12) The landmark research that brought Doudna and Charpentier to the pinnacle of global acclaim has the potential to control future pandemics — either by outwitting the next viral plague through better screening and treatment or by engineering human beings with better disease resistance programmed into their cells. The technique of gene editing that they patented, which goes by the unwieldy acronym of CRISPR-Cas9, makes it possible to selectively snip and alter bits of DNA as though they were so many hems to take up or waistbands to let out. The method is based on defenses pioneered by bacteria in their ages-old battle against viruses.

. . .

The CRISPR history holds obvious appeal for Walter Isaacson, a biographer of Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, Steve Jobs and Leonardo da Vinci. In “The Code Breaker” he reprises several of his previous themes — science, genius, experiment, code, thinking different — and devotes a full length book to a female subject for the first time.

. . .

Isaacson keeps a firm, experienced hand on the scientific explanations, which he mastered through extensive readings and interviews, all of which are footnoted.

For the full review, see:

Dava Sobel. “Deus Ex Machina.” The New York Times Book Review (Sunday, March 21, 2021 [sic]): 12.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date March 8, 2021 [sic], and has the title “A Biography of the Woman Who Will Re-Engineer Humans.”)

The book under review is:

Isaacson, Walter. The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2021.

“Momentum Around Solar Geoengineering Is Building Fast”

(p. A19) A few years ago, the idea of deliberately blocking the sun to combat climate change was taboo for scientists. But a lot can change in a short time.

As the disastrous effects of climate change mount, Congress has asked federal scientists for a research plan, private money is flowing and rogue start-ups are attempting experiments — all signs that momentum around solar geoengineering is building fast. The most discussed approach involves spraying tiny particles into the stratosphere to reflect sunlight and cool the planet. Other proposals include injecting sea salt into clouds to increase their reflectivity or using giant space parasols to block the sun.

It might all sound like dystopian science fiction, but some techno-futurists, like OpenAI’s chief executive, Sam Altman, are already normalizing it: “We’re going to have to do something dramatic with climate like geoengineering as a Band-Aid, as a stopgap,” he said in January [2024] at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

No one fully understands the risks of these technologies — which could include calamitous disruptions in weather — or how significant the benefits could be. I’m increasingly convinced that we should do more research on solar geoengineering.

. . .

. . . science is fallible precisely because it is a practice, a cooperative human activity. And as the moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre reminds us, engaging in a practice well requires exercising its virtues — which for science include transparency, honesty, humility, skepticism and collaboration.

For the full commentary, see:

Jeremy Freeman. “Let’s Find Out if This Can Cool the Planet.” The New York Times (Tuesday, March 19, 2024): A19.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date March 17, 2024, and has the title “The Best Way to Find Out if We Can Cool the Planet.”)