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As you watch the falling snow, do you marvel at the beauty of the scene or dread driving to work on icy pavement? Most of our nation’s roads get at least some snow most years, and that means clearing snow and ice from pavement is big business. For highways alone, agencies in the U.S. spend $2.3 billion each season trying to remove snow and ice. And billions more are spent by local governments battling Mother Nature on city streets and county roads.
Climate is always changing. That’s one truth that stands out from the record around the world of natural samples of Earth materials, tree rings, ice layers and so much more. But how much has past climate change influenced human affairs? In anthropology it’s been relatively commonplace to look at the twists and turns of ancient human history and assign at least some major population collapses to climate change. It certainly stands to reason that climate stress may have impacted early human populations – the only real question is how often.
I own a couple of small gold nuggets. They came from the Round Mountain gold mine in Nevada, which I visited a few years ago. A tour of the open-pit mine was crowned by a visit to their foundry where the molten metal was poured into gold bars. Those bars are what’s called doré gold, that is, the metal as it comes out of the ground with minor impurities in it like silver. The doré bars are then transported to a refinery where pure gold can be separated from other metals. I got to heft one of the doré bars, and I can attest that gold is, indeed, remarkably dense.
Earlier this year I went to a fundraiser where I bought a bag of Glee flour. Glee is a variety of hard red spring wheat that was developed at Washington State University. I used the flour in my favorite bread recipe, one I have modified a bit from a Mennonite cookbook I treasure. There’s a bit of soy flour and powdered milk in my bread, which ups the protein content. The recipe calls for 50 percent white flour, 40 percent whole wheat, and 10 percent rye. I used the Glee flour as the white flour. When I set the dough in a slightly warm oven, I was amazed at how fast it rose.
As a kid, I read the Sherlock Holmes stories and the mysteries of Agatha Christie. As an adult, I wrote four mysteries that focused on a Quaker heroine solving crimes she happened across in her religious community. (I published them using my grandmother’s name – Irene Allen – as a pseudonym.) And, as a geologist, I’ve read about real-life criminal investigations that involved samples of sand and soil. But it wasn’t until I talked with Nathalie Wall of the chemistry department at Washington State University that I got my head around forensic science that relates to radioactive materials.
It’s astonishing to think about, but when my grandfather was born, tuberculosis was the No. 1 cause of death in our country. Worse still, one in five children didn’t live to see their fifth birthday, in large part due to endemic and epidemic diseases. Today that’s all changed. Although doctors can often do a great deal, it’s also true that chronic diseases plague us. And a number of these maladies seem to be on the rise, including diabetes, asthma, celiac disease, food allergies and especially obesity.
This is the time of year to get outdoors and observe Mother Nature in all her glory. With a simple field guide to trees or birds and a Sunday afternoon trip to a local park, you can play amateur scientist and immerse yourself in forces larger than those we humans create. A friend and I are making plans for an extended road trip to two national parks in southwest Utah. We will spend two or three days in Bryce Canyon National Park and a day touring Zion. We won’t go until the end of September, though, after the heat of summer in Utah has passed. The days will be shorter then, but in some ways the sunlight is all the more sweet as the evenings draw in closer and earlier.
Think about the most complicated machine you’ve dealt with in the past year. Was it a beeping monitor tethered to a high-tech device in an emergency room? Or was it a super-fast computer you used at work? Actually, the most complicated machine you’ve interacted with was the one you used this morning when you switched on a light or plugged in your coffee machine. The entire power grid has to balance supply (generation) and demand (load) on a second-by-second basis. We take it for granted most of the time, but it’s a marvel when you stop to think about it.
My elderly aunt recently came into some money. She decided – very generously – to send part of it to each of her nieces and nephews. This gave me the task of choosing how I wanted to spend an unexpected $1,000. I decided to buy a new range for my kitchen. I wouldn’t otherwise buy a new appliance, and by spending the money on a range I will be able to remember my aunt and bless her name each night as I cook supper. My old range was electric. The oven was slow and the burners were problematic. I replaced all the burners but still had unpredictable and inconsistent heating. I grew up with a natural gas cook stove, so decided to buy one for my house. I like gas because you can see when it’s on, because it cuts off instantly, and because I think of natural gas as a pretty clean fuel we can get from domestic sources.
While I have been dinking around for months, trying to lose five pounds, two of my friends have gotten serious about weight loss. Each of them is down 50 pounds. I’m pleased for them, of course, and truly impressed by their accomplishments. Successfully combating too much weight and obesity is one of the best things people can do for their health. It can help everything from joint pain to heart function, from Type 2 diabetes to certain aspects of mental health. But it’s not always easy to know what we should eat. How many calories are in a slice of pizza or a baked potato? Is it better to reach for an apple or a banana as a snack – or does it make any difference?
There are two main things most people would like to know about particular volcanoes: When is the next eruption and how big will that eruption be? Scientists in Iceland have taken another step forward in monitoring volcanoes to best predict when they will erupt and even warn people of the size of the coming eruption. In May 2011, a volcano in Iceland named Grímsvötn erupted. It generated a 12-mile-high plume of volcanic debris that temporarily grounded airplanes as far away as Great Britain. The problem wasn’t as great, though, as that which had occurred a year earlier, when another Icelandic volcano erupted. That eruption – from the Eyjafjallajökull volcano – grounded many flights across northern Europe and made headlines.
Thirty years ago, I was a light smoker. After several failed attempts to quit, I was able, for some reason, to go cold turkey and finally be done with tobacco. Maybe I got off easy. One thing is for sure: I don’t judge anyone who still smokes, because I know some strong-willed people who have yet to quit. But while the new year is still in its infancy, perhaps it’s worth taking a look at the medical facts to see how much good you can do yourself by quitting now. And there’s some research about a new product that might help you quit once and for all.
When I was a kid, Jimmy Carter was in the White House. His wife, Rosalynn, was quite an active first lady. She sat in on official meetings held by her husband and was said to be one of his closest advisers. Many first ladies have used their position to promote a cause. One of the things that most interested Rosalynn Carter was mental health research and treatment. She has remained active in promoting those areas since leaving the White House.
Alcoholism runs in part of my family. I lost a grandfather to it, and a couple of others in the family have been affected by it to greater or lesser degrees. Perhaps something like that is true for you, or maybe you have a friend or co-worker who wrestles with the malady. This is a challenging time of year for alcoholics trying to stay sober. New Year’s Eve alone can be a real test.
As every schoolchild knows, counting the growth rings in a tree tells you how old the tree is. But some samples of wood can tell you even more than age. That’s because some trees live in difficult environments. They grow best only when there is a good year in terms of precipitation, temperature and the like, so they have growth rings that are quite uneven. Some are thick, representing good years for growth, while others are thin from when times were tough. In the southwest U.S., a lot of work has been done with tree rings. Indeed, the whole science of what’s called dendrochronology was worked out in that region in the early and mid-20th century. But since then, scientists around the world have also used basic ideas about tree rings to do several different things.
I know we are still only in Advent. But at this point in December, my mind starts to turn toward Christmas. It just can’t be helped, especially with all the ads featuring Santa. Christmas is about tradition: traditional foods and songs, church services. For a few geeks, Christmas is also an ideal time to get in a little bit of scientific research. What could be better than to combine some of the traditional activities of the season with the chance to learn a bit more about the natural world?
When I was a younger and more sprightly woman, I spent part of my life investigating unusual hot springs in rural California. They were salty and quite stinky springs out in the middle of nowhere, and several of them occurred right in the center of an old gold-laced mercury deposit. The fieldwork had its challenges. In the afternoon it was routinely over 100 degrees, and the sun was relentless. One afternoon, I even flirted with heatstroke. Another problem was that the rattlesnakes were numerous and big.
We all know the basic medical facts: We should make healthy choices about what we eat and incorporate exercise into our busy lives. Most of the science of weight loss matches common sense. But it’s also true that more Americans are overweight or obese. As a nation, we are losing the battle of the bulge. How then can we motivate ourselves to address our ever-growing weight problem? Recently published results from a study funded by Weight Watchers grabbed some headlines and offer some ideas.
“It’s 8:16 on a chilly, wet morning. … You’ve just arrived at work and are pouring a cup of coffee when you become aware of a low rumbling noise. Within seconds, the rumbling becomes a roar, the floor beneath you heaves, and the building begins to pitch and shake so violently that you’re thrown to the floor. The roaring is joined by a cacophony of crashing as windows shatter and every unsecured object in the room – from the desk chair to the coffeepot – is sent flying.
I don’t know the full heritage of my mutt from the pound, Buster Brown by name. Buster was listed as a “Lab mix” by the humane society, but my vet has said he is more of a German shepherd mix. We all can agree he’s a mongrel. When he was young, there were a couple of occasions when Buster froze and seemed to point toward the wildlife we encountered as we ambled along the bottom of the Snake River canyon. It’s impressive when a young dog, full of wild amounts of energy, stops in his tracks and points. I don’t know how we bred that into some dogs, but it’s an impressive trick.