Saturday, September 30, 2006

Orange Plastic

Shrouded in black curtains, the wonders of Wired Magazine's Nextfest displayed themselves to a (dare I say?) somewhat geeky crowd that was eager to see the latest science and technological innovations this weekend. Needless to say, I was among them.

Deep in the recesses of the giant room was the "green" section. There, standing at a small table were two young guys who were telling people that natural things like citrus fruits can make plastic.

How does this possible? Well, according to these two Cornell Ph.D. graduates, it's pretty simple. Stacked on top of each other were three clear, plastic boxes. One had a white balloon inside, representing limonene (which is found in citrus fruits) and two had red balloons, representing carbon. This molecule creates a strong plastic that is comparable to the plastics used to create things like a cup.

Apparently one company is interested in buying this technology that can decompose in a compost heap. Is it truly possible that organic things can make biodegrading plastic? One would like to think that if they can get a booth at Nextfest, anything can happen.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Nanotechnology for Water

Using a technology that is virtually invisible to the naked eye, scientists may be able to make your water, and everyone else's, cleaner. Nanotechnology designed to find contaminants in water and possibly even filter it in a way that conventional technology cannot could be the wave of the future, scientists and nanotechnology advocates told me when I was reporting a story for Scienceline, my Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Program's webzine (the shortest distance between you and science).

At this point, even a hard look into a crystal ball won't be able to tell us whether or not all will be well after materials are nano-sized. The government is still supporting research, but oversight committees also caution that a close eye should be trained on the possibility of unintended health effects, The Scientist also reported yesterday.

If you believe in technological innovation, however, the future looks bright. Such little things might help us go a long way.

Friday, September 22, 2006

A Legend's Discussion

I know it may seem like I am obsessing a bit about E.O. Wilson, but after hearing him talk last week, I thought that other people might like to read about his presentation:

As E.O. Wilson, the Harvard entomologist, put his reading classes on to read from his book at the request of his interviewer, a hush came over the audience. Reading flawlessly, Wilson managed to captivate over 200 people after reading just two pages, enchanting the crowd with his words.

At the beginning of his new book, Creation, Wilson, the Pulitzer Prize winning author, writes to a fictional Baptist minister in Alabama, requesting that the Baptist church and its congregation get involved in protecting the earth. “If a tiny fraction could be recruited, it could tip the balance,” he said to Ira Flatow, his interviewer from National Public Radio’s Science Friday broadcast.

Wilson’s intention in writing the book was not to give his two cents about the marriage of science and religion, he explained to the crowd at the New York Public Library last Thursday. “I didn’t want to get into it,” he said. “I have too many relatives in Alabama,” he joked.

The reason that he decided to address the Baptist community, he said, was “pure and simple I wanted to save creation.” There is a natural overlap between the two groups, he explained, even though their ideologies are sometimes at odds.

Wilson doesn’t think that Intelligent Design should be taught in science class or that the scientific and religious communities must reach some sort of compromise. “There is no room for compromise,” he said. “Why would we have to compromise in the metaphysical to take action?”

The two groups come to the discussion from different perspectives, he said, and both can speak of a creation using different words. Baptists have the Bible and scientists have research. Humans see just one tiny section of the spectrum of light and can hear only certain frequencies, Wilson said. Research shows that elephants communicate at lower frequencies than humans can hear, while bats use a higher frequency than humans can hear. We can’t even feel electricity physically like some marine animals unless we stick our fingers in a socket, Wilson said. “Science is the best of what the Old Testament poets could have asked for.”

Wilson is asking the Baptist community to show concern about what is happening to the planet. He illustrated his point by quoting Billy Graham: “Just because humans have dominion over the earth doesn’t mean we have to destroy it.”

Wilson makes his eloquent request because his has seen the damage first hand. “I’m tired of going down to the tropics where I started my research and seeing one more acre of rainforest gone,” he said, leaning back in his chair. The earth’s history shows that one species in a million naturally went extinct every year. Now, because of humans, the extinction rate has gone up an order of magnitude to 1,000 and could reach 10,000 if it’s unabated, Wilson estimated.

“How awkward I feel that I and other scientists should have to plead for life. I feel like a defense attorney,” he told the audience.

Despite the seriousness of the topic, Wilson kept the mood light, telling the audience that he didn’t want to sound like a Pollyanna, but that he did think that we could turn things around. One woman in the audience expressed the effect of Wilson’s message: “Now I feel like I can get up in the morning.”

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Talk Amongst Yourselves

Did you ever list E.O. Wilson as one of the people you would like to invite to dinner? He's not exactly sitting at your dining table, but the web has given us the next best thing. In celebration of Wilson's new book on environmentalism and religion, Audubon magazine (where I interned this summer) is engaging him in an e-conversation with a scientist and a religious leader all this week. Check it out and decide if you agree that science and religion are a match made in heaven.