The Art of the Possible

I’ve been intending to start a lay-person’s version of my weekly postings on the American Chemical Society website. Several of my Twitter followers have mentioned that they are impressed, but confused, by these tech-heavy synopses, written for an audience of professional chemists. I thought I might wait for a week with an “accessible” topic, like medieval bones or counterfeit currency, but I decided that I might as well just jump in and start today.

I really picked a doozy of a week to start. This week’s post deals with an energy minimization study of silica- and germania-based zeolites. Say what?


Sodalite, a naturally occurring zeolite. Source: Wikipedia, used under Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike License (posted by Ra’ike)

OK, let’s start with “zeolites”. These are inorganic materials, some found in nature, some made in a lab or a factory. If you’re going to get really picky about it, you can call them “microporous solids”. At the atomic scale, these materials form frameworks with a lot of open space, so you can use them as “molecular sieves”, or you can make them into containers for other molecules. Zeolites are great for catalytic converters in cars, for making all kinds of chemicals from petroleum, or for absorbing huge amounts of water in disposable diapers, among other uses.
Carbon dioxide molecules in zeolite cages. Source: Berend Smit laboratory, UC Berkeley, via Department of Energy’s National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center

Carbon dioxide molecules in zeolite cages. Source: Berend Smit laboratory, UC Berkeley, via Department of Energy’s National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center

Scientists have spent decades assembling databases of zeolite framework structures. Some of these structures already exist in the real world. Others “ought to” exist, from geometrical considerations, but they’ve never been made before. Every now and then, someone runs across one of these hypothetical structures, and they want to know whether it’s worth their time and effort to try and make the actual material. Maybe it has cavities of just the right shape, or it has channels of the right size, for some application that this person has in mind.

In addition to structural databases, scientists have access to databases that contain information on how stable certain chemical compositions and arrangements are. These databases are the results of years of research gained from chemical reactions, melting, compressing, and otherwise poking and prodding various materials. As a result, scientists can examine a series of framework structures to see which ones are the most stable.

A research group from Arizona State University recently published the results of their structural stability calculations, using hypothetical zeolite structures made from silica (silicon dioxide, the same stuff that beach sand is made of) and germania (germanium dioxide, which is chemically very similar to silica). (Chemistry of Materials 2014, 26, 1523–1527). They looked at framework structures based on building blocks containing one silicon (or germanium) atom surrounded by four oxygen atoms, each oxygen atom acting as a bridge between one building block and the next. These frameworks are referred to as “tetrahedral networks”. The group was especially interested in the angles formed by two silicon (or germanium) atoms and the oxygen atom bridging them, or T–O–T angles.

Schematic of tetrahedral building blocks. A silicon or germanium atom is at the center of each tetrahedron, and oxygen atoms are at each point. Source: Wikipedia, used under Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike License (posted by Trikly)

Schematic of tetrahedral building blocks. A silicon or germanium atom is at the center of each tetrahedron, and oxygen atoms are at each point. Source: Wikipedia, used under Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike License (posted by Trikly)

The research group did calculations for a series of known structures, distorting the structures over a wide range of T–O–T angles and watching to see whether the stability increased or decreased. For all of the silica structures, the structures became more stable as the angles increased from 120º to 140º. From 140º to 180º, the stability stayed about the same. Germania structures, however, were most stable in a narrow angular range between 128º and 130º.

Several commercially important zeolites have structures with T–O–T angles in a range that would make silica very happy, but would be an uncomfortable contortion for germania. In fact, of the 5824 stable frameworks described in the Atlas of Prospective Zeolite Structures, 994 have all of their T–O–T angles in the optimal range for silica (135º–180º), but only 48 are in the most favorable range for germania (117º–145º). Mixing germanium and silicon in the framework might extend the range of stable bond angles and increase the number of stable structures available for synthesis.

A World of Slow Drips

by Nancy McGuire,

Carlsbad, New Mexico

Some farmers near Carlsbad, New Mexico (shown here) find it more profitable to sell their water to fracking operations than to irrigate their drought-stricken land.
Photo by Nancy McGuire

On January 24, a panel of seven journalists gathered at Washington, DC’s, Wilson Center to brief an overflow crowd of policy wonks, issue advocates, writers and reporters, and other interested citizens on the likely hot topics in environment and energy for 2014. The annual event, co-sponsored by the Global Sustainability and Resilience Program, the Canada Institute, the Science and Technology Innovation Program, and the Society of Environmental Journalists, featured a lively audience Q&A session at the end. This is the last in a four-part series on this briefing.

Dennis Dimick, executive editor of environment at National Geographic, spoke of a nexus where food, water, and energy issues meet. Much of the petroleum extraction being done today, including water-intensive fracking operations, is being done in arid regions. Many arid regions in the U.S. are under stress because of decreases in the mountain snow pack that replenishes rivers and lakes every year.

Heavy demands from the extraction industries, agriculture, and growing cities have tended to push aside concerns for the indigenous animal and plant life. This neglect could have serious repercussions for human populations because of complex cause-and-effect relationships and the interconnecting roles that drive environmental effects. “It’s not just a water supply for people, you have to look at the whole ecosystem,” Dimick said.

At the same time that arid regions in the western U.S. are dealing with extended drought periods and diminishing snow melt, they are experiencing significant population growth. Cities in these regions, including Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Las Vegas, are already experiencing water shortages. Their demand for water is outstripping the ability of their aquifers to replenish themselves, and in essence, they are “mining fossil water”, said Dimick. Water stress is not limited to the southwestern deserts, however. Orlando, Atlanta, and the San Francisco Bay area are also feeling the pinch. (See this article in Yahoo Finance on the ten largest U.S. cities dealing with water shortages.)


Slow drips, hard knocks. Shifts in climate patterns produce weather extremes of all kinds.
Photo by Nancy McGuire

These stories are sometimes not covered in the news as well as they could be, noted Andrew Revkin, the science and environmental author who runs The New York Times blog “Dot Earth”. In part, this is because the long development times for phenomena including climate change and ecosystem degradation are hard to report on a journalistic time scale. It’s much easier to generate a news item about a particular wildfire in California than to report on a decades-long increase in the number and intensity of wildfires across the Southwest. However, “it’s a world of slow drips that set up hard knocks,” Revkin noted.

Dramatic elements of a news story often overshadow the factors that contributed to the drama, Revkin continued. For example, Tacloban, a city in the Philippines that sustained massive damage during last November’s Super-typhoon Haiyan, saw its population triple over the past 40 years, according to the National Census Office for the Philippines.

Poverty and infrastructure neglect are common in this city, located in a particularly storm-prone area. About one-third of Tacloban’s homes have wooden exterior walls. One in seven homes has a grass roof (down from about a quarter of all homes in 2000), according to the National Census Office report. (Revkin discusses this in detail in his Dot Earth blog.)

More humans means more human loss when a “fairly typical” disaster hits, Revkin said. This is especially true when more humans concentrate in particularly sensitive or disaster-prone areas. He noted that “misguided incentives” encourage people to build in harm’s way, including insurance policies that cover rebuilding in risky areas. “Insurance costs should rise” to cover the risks, he said.

Revkin noted the effects of confounding factors in creating climate models and predicting resource levels in the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa. Changes in the environment and living standards there are driven by more than just greenhouse gas levels. He noted complexities in climatology and widespread mismanagement of water resources as examples.

When considering the effects of population growth and resource consumption on climate change, “consumption is key,” said Revkin in response to a question from an audience member. “Nine billion vegan monks” would have a much smaller impact on global resources than, say, a world of upper-middle-class Americans. However, large family sizes can reduce the quality of life for dense local pockets of urban poor people, and localized family planning efforts can have positive effects on such things as deforestation. The issue doesn’t get discussed much, he added.

Suzanne Goldenberg, the U.S. environmental correspondent for The Guardian, noted that rich nations are the “main perpetrators” of climate change effects because the scale on which they extract and consume fossil fuels so far outstrips that of less prosperous countries. Large international agencies and treaty organizations have made little progress on targeting efforts toward getting rich nations to act, but small side negotiations could produce significant results, she said.

A Matter of National Security
What about the impact of climate change on national security? Coral Davenport, who covers climate and energy for The New York Times, noted the 20-year effort by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to address climate change issues. She asserted that the State Department is heavily focused on climate effects and their influence on national security. She also noted that the Department of Defense is acutely aware of the issue. “The awareness is there … and it’s growing,” she said.

Goldenberg noted that the U.S. military’s leadership is pushing to reduce or eliminate dependence on petroleum-based fuels. They have put great pressure on unit commanders to “green” their establishments (but they don’t call it “green”), she said. Davenport explained that the military’s push toward alternative fuel sources is driven by security concerns, with the environmental benefits as a fortuitous side effect. Transporting fuel to remote or hostile locations is prohibitively expensive in terms of money and danger to the lives of servicemen, and oil convoys are prime targets for attack, she added.

Food shortages are another national security concern. Several recent riots in other countries have been attributed to food price increases driven by crop failures brought on by drought. The problem is beginning to make itself felt in the U.S. as well, said Dimick. Farmers in the southern high plains of Texas can no longer grow corn, he said. Instead, they have begun to raise dry-land crops such as grain sorghum. (Other sources note that the high plains water shortage is caused both by drought and by depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer. Farmers have switched to short-season corn, grain sorghum, and cotton to reduce demand for water.)

Effecting Changes in the Political Climate
Given the polarized and combative atmosphere in Congress, is there any hope that legislators representing deeply conservative constituents in the “red states” could support efforts to address climate change? Is there hope for a carbon tax, or will big business defeat any efforts in this direction?

Davenport stated that when large companies see their profitability threatened by climate effects, they often come around to support climate change mitigation efforts. She noted that Monsanto, an agricultural products company whose customer base is largely in the red states, is concerned about volatility in weather patterns. Droughts, tornadoes, and wildfires threaten the farmers who make up the company’s customer base.

Cloudy future

Conflicting political, public, and industrial priorities create an uncertain future.
Photo by Nancy McGuire

Exxon Mobil, the petroleum producer, has acknowledged the role of carbon emissions in climate change. This company, which is a major donor to Republican campaigns, has developed a proposal for a carbon tax. Davenport noted that this change of heart occurred when Exxon Mobil bought natural gas producer XTO Energy in 2009, adding that their embrace of climate science is now good for their bottom line.

Despite support from major corporations (and campaign donors), conservative lawmakers are still fighting regulations that address climate change, Davenport said. Larry Pearl, Bloomberg BNA’s director of environmental news, noted that support from business could give moderate legislators the political cover they need to support legislation without being branded anti-business. “Business is out ahead of the lawmakers on this,” he said.

Davenport noted that significant legislative changes will come when red-state Republicans have the constituent backing and political will to support these changes. This, in turn, will happen when local effects — depleted or contaminated water supplies, or increases in insurance rates because of floods or wildfires — drive citizens to push for change. In some ways, she said, the push for action from the left impedes change because it hardens the opposition and politicizes the issues. This makes it harder for moderates to speak up without paying a price politically.

This is the last in a four-part series on the January 24 briefing, “The Year Ahead in Environment and Energy”. Previous posts: Global Issues, Local Actions, Coal: Politics and Power Supplies, and Keystone Capers and Ocean Issues.

Keystone Capers and Ocean Issues

by Nancy McGuire,

protester arrested

The Keystone Pipeline mobilized public protests in 2013. Shown here: A man is arrested near the White House during a protest rally (not related to Keystone).
Photo by Nancy McGuire

On January 24, a panel of seven journalists gathered at Washington, DC’s, Wilson Center to brief an overflow crowd of policy wonks, issue advocates, writers and reporters, and other interested citizens on the likely hot topics in environment and energy for 2014. The annual event, co-sponsored by the Global Sustainability and Resilience Program, the Canada Institute, the Science and Technology Innovation Program, and the Society of Environmental Journalists, featured a lively audience Q&A session at the end. This is the third in a four-part series on this briefing.

Opposition to Canada’s Keystone Pipeline, a story that generated significant heat inside the Beltway last year, may be producing some unintended effects. “Canada is committed to developing its oil sands, Keystone or not,” said Larry Pearl, Bloomberg BNA’s director of environmental news. If the Keystone construction project is prevented or delayed, the industry could resort to railroads and ships to bring crude oil to market. As of today, though, Canada doesn’t have the shipping routes to be able to do this, countered Suzanne Goldenberg, U.S. environmental correspondent for The Guardian. “Every day that the oil stays in the ground … is a small victory for the environmental movement,” she said, adding that this delay gives natural gas a chance to further dominate the U.S. market.

Politically, the Keystone protests were effective in mobilizing citizen groups on both sides of the issue and stirring up awareness and interest in issues surrounding petroleum extraction and transport. In an imperfect way, Keystone was used as a proxy in the debate surrounding climate change response versus job creation. However, the Keystone issue has not mobilized people enough to effect real change, said Goldenberg. Real changes have come about in the last three or four years through “little movements” centered around oil, gas, and fracking issues. It’s hard to quantify, she said, but the big groups are starting to listen.

Pearl noted that “people need to be stimulated somehow” to take action on issues such as the Keystone Pipeline. Often, people are focused on issues of more immediate concern, including unemployment and food prices. Oil pipelines in Canada seem remote, and the effects are slow to develop.

Andrew Revkin, the science and environmental author who runs The New York Times blog “Dot Earth”, mentioned the divestment movements on many college campuses, where student activists have pushed their administrators to stop investing in businesses that pursue practices that are harmful to the environment. The dollar amounts are small, he said, but the influence on university investment strategies and the awareness-raising effects are significant.

Cheryl Hogue, senior correspondent for Chemical and Engineering News, noted that “moms who blog and tweet” are another group whose influence greatly exceeds its economic clout. Companies are willing to go to great lengths to avoid the kind of damage that a social media campaign gone viral can cause. Coral Davenport, who covers climate and energy for The New York Times, cited the example of the “no GMOs” advertising campaign that Cheerios launched this year, but she noted that oats don’t contain GMOs anyhow. The threat of fallout from an anti-GMO campaign, however, was enough to motivate General Mills to emphasize this fact. (This writer notes that Cheerios also contain corn starch and corn syrup. Presumably, these ingredients will no longer contain GMO corn, if they ever did.)

Revkin noted that the U.S. must move wisely in developing a policy around Keystone. “Obama needs good relations with Canada,” he said. Davenport concurred: The world is looking to see what Obama does on environmental regulations and the Keystone Pipeline to see whether he is negotiating in good faith, she said. Dennis Dimick, executive editor of environment at National Geographic, added that commitments to infrastructure building projects set the energy path for decades because of the large scale and expense of these projects. A choice in one direction closes off other choices for years, he said.

The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

Clouds over water

Sky-darkening geo-engineering projects would not alleviate ocean acidification.
Photo by Nancy McGuire

What stories about the ocean are likely to dominate the news in 2014? asked one audience member. “One word: plastics,” quipped Hogue.

Acidification is another strong candidate, according to Davenport. It’s a concrete problem with immediate economic effects, she added. This type of story creates more of a spur to action than some of the more abstract issues or those that develop over longer periods of time.

Dimick warned that many of the geo-engineering schemes being proposed would mitigate atmospheric warming by injecting light-scattering or light-shielding particles into the atmosphere, but these efforts would have no effect on the amount of carbon entering the ocean from the atmosphere. This carbon is a major cause of ocean acidification.

Honolulu penguin

Arctic thawing opens migration paths. A penguin in a Honolulu zoo (he didn’t migrate there).
Photo by Nancy McGuire

Pearl and Revkin discussed the effects of new open-ocean corridors opening up as a result of the shrinking Arctic ice cap. Some species of marine animals are currently migrating to new areas, along paths that were previously blocked by ice. Revkin noted that invasive species of all kinds consume a major part of the time and resources for managers of fisheries, wildlife, and national parks.

Dimmick added that the shrinking Arctic ice cap affects migration of the jet stream, and he cited the “polar vortex” cold weather system that has plagued much of the eastern U.S. and Canada this month.

This is the third in a four-part series on the January 24 briefing, “The Year Ahead in Environment and Energy”. Previous posts: Global Issues, Local Actions and Coal: Politics and Power Supplies. Upcoming topic: A World of Slow Drips.

Coal: Politics and Power Supplies

by Nancy McGuire,

downtown Lisbon

Coal generates the electricity that runs the world’s cities. A busy street in Lisbon, home to the Electricity Museum.
Photo by Nancy McGuire

On January 24, a panel of seven journalists gathered at Washington, DC’s, Wilson Center to brief an overflow crowd of policy wonks, issue advocates, writers and reporters, and other interested citizens on the likely hot topics in environment and energy for 2014. The annual event, co-sponsored by the Global Sustainability and Resilience Program, the Canada Institute, the Science and Technology Innovation Program, and the Society of Environmental Journalists, featured a lively audience Q&A session at the end. This is the second in a four-part series on this briefing.

Coal in U.S. Politics
This year’s U.S. midterm elections will increasingly influence the debate on the use, regulation, and export of coal, said Suzanne Goldenberg, the U.S. environmental correspondent for The Guardian. Coral Davenport, who covers climate and energy for The New York Times, concurred. The Republican Party accuses the Obama administration of waging a “war on coal”, Davenport said. “I think that’s accurate. He is waging a war on coal, but we don’t know what the public reaction will be. They could be OK with the new stricter regulations.”

Noting that some Republican strategists were planning to use missteps on implementing the Affordable Health Care Act and the supposed job-destroying effects of over-regulating the coal industry as a one-two punch in the upcoming campaign season, she cited past examples that this strategy had failed to produce the anticipated public outrage.

Davenport described a “very different dynamic” in the Obama administration from his first term. There is a good chance that draft rules for new coal regulations will pass in time to meet the June 2014 deadline. The administration is pushing the EPA — “nagging them,” said Davenport — to complete the draft rules quickly. She cited public support for the rules as the reason for the administration’s new-found assertiveness in the face of Republican opposition.

This writer notes that this is a shift in direction from the 2012 election season, when all three leading presidential candidates sang the praises of “clean coal” as a potentially important contributor to the U.S. energy supply. Dennis Dimick, executive editor of environment at National Geographic, plugged an upcoming article, “Will Clean Coal Ever Be Clean?” (an article this writer wishes had been published two years ago). Carbon capture, another sound bite from the 2012 election season, is currently being performed on a very small scale compared to carbon output, stated Andrew Revkin, the science and environmental author who runs The New York Times blog “Dot Earth”.

cloudy sky

Cloudy future for coal-fired power plants: The “war on coal” is not an all-out attack.
Photo by Nancy McGuire

Larry Pearl, Bloomberg BNA’s director of environmental news, noted that the administration’s war on coal was not an all-out attack, since President Obama supports U.S. coal exports.

One audience member asked whether environmental activists were correct to complain about a lack of action by the President on environmental issues. Panel members agreed that pushing the administration for more action was “business as usual” for environmental organizations, but what had changed was the administration’s response.

Goldenberg cited one recent example where John Podesta (senior advisor to President Obama) sharply rebuked a group of U.S. environmental leaders for criticizing the President’s perceived lack of commitment to addressing climate change. Podesta, who until recently headed the Center for American Progress, is known for strongly pushing pro-environmental issues, but even he seemed to have reached his limit. (See this article in The Washington Post.)

Coal Around the World
Coal is both a global commodity and a locally produced and consumed resource, Revkin said. He cited the example of Australia, which does not count the coal it exports to China in its own consumption figures. He also noted that stopping exports to China would have very little impact on the interior of the country, where coal is mined and consumed locally. Although the natural gas boom in the U.S. is driving domestic demand away from coal, the global increase in the demand for coal is outstripping the demand for other energy sources, Dimick said.

One audience member asked whether U.S. port cities could slow coal exports by adopting strict new regulations. Davenport cited the example of a November 2013 county council election in Whatcom County, in northwest Washington State, that was widely viewed as a referendum on a proposed coal export terminal. Pro-environmental groups outspent coal-industry groups in campaign contributions, although spending on both sides was in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. (Bellingham Herald, October 24, 2013) In the end, the progressive candidates won. (Bellingham Herald, November 5, 2013) Almost six months after regulatory agencies made their decision on the scope of environmental study for a proposed Whatcom County coal export terminal at Cherry Point, the study process itself has not yet begun. (Bellingham Herald, January 19, 2014)

Northwest Washington

Northwest Washington State says no to coal export terminal, for now. Sunset on Orcas Island, WA, across the sound from Cherry Point.
Photo by Nancy McGuire

Could other nations, including China, start their own fracking programs, driving an international move away from coal and toward natural gas? Revkin stated that China was more interested in importing liquefied natural gas from the U.S. than in producing their own. Pearl said that China was interested in moving away from coal and toward using more natural gas. Factors impeding other nations’ willingness to begin fracking include concerns about potential damage to their water supplies and uncertainties about long-term waste disposal. “Fracking is forever,” said Goldenberg.

China’s 2015 cap on coal production and consumption might not have a significant effect on U.S. exports to that country, said Revkin, in response to a question from the audience. A lot of their coal is produced locally, he said. Dimick noted that although China imports only 5% of its coal, in absolute tonnage amounts, this is more than the rest of the world combined.

China wants to grow, said Douglas Fischer, editor of The Daily Climate and moderator of Friday’s panel. They are looking at the standard of living in the U.S. and wondering why they can’t have the same. Also, much of the coal they are importing is used to fuel the industries that manufacture products for export to the U.S., so indirectly, the U.S. is fueling their demand for coal, he said.

This is the second in a four-part series on the January 24 briefing, “The Year Ahead in Environment and Energy”. Previous post: Global Issues, Local actions. Upcoming topics: Keystone Capers and Ocean Issues, and A World of Slow Drips.

Energy and the Environment: Global Issues, Local Actions

by Nancy McGuire,

U.S. Capitol

Regulation and litigation, but little legislation.
Photo by Nancy McGuire

A newly assertive federal executive branch, push-back from the legislature and judicial system, unintended effects of social activism, unanticipated effects of leaking storage tanks and Arctic thaws, who’s using coal, reasons to “go green” that don’t involve tree-hugging — 2014 will have no shortage of news stories on energy and the environment, according to a panel of seven journalistic prognosticators.


On January 24, the panel gathered at Washington, DC’s, Wilson Center to brief an overflow crowd of interested policy wonks, issue advocates, writers and reporters, and other interested citizens on the likely hot topics in environment and energy for 2014. The annual event, co-sponsored by the Global Sustainability and Resilience Program, the Canada Institute, the Science and Technology Innovation Program, and the Society of Environmental Journalists, featured a lively audience Q&A session at the end.


Larry Pearl, Bloomberg BNA’s director of environmental news, gave a fly-over review of some of the governmental issues coming to a head this year. Several EPA rule proposals, final rules, and standards revisions address the interstate transport of air pollutants generated by power plants and other sources, carbon and mercury emissions limits, renewable fuel additive standards, and water infrastructure projects. One proposed rule under the Clean Water Act modifies the definition of “waters of the United States” to give the EPA broader authority to enforce regulations farther from shore. EPA final rulings on coal ash management and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) definitions of “solid waste” are also due this year.


Land use regulations

EPA rules address airborne emissions.
Photo by Nancy McGuire

Other agencies have important items on the agenda as well. The Bureau of Land Management is due to issue final rules updates on oil and gas exploration on federal lands, to address the issues posed by fracking operations. President Obama has been active in designating land as wilderness areas and national monuments in the western U.S., said Coral Davenport, who covers climate and energy for The New York Times, in response to a question from the audience. Obama will probably do more of this during the rest of his term, she added. This has angered the Republican party, because these lands have been placed off-limits for commercial production.


The panel agreed that most of the changes this year will be driven by regulation and litigation, not legislation. Several upcoming court cases will clarify and delineate the boundaries of the EPA’s authority, said Pearl, including the agency’s jurisdiction for regulating fracking. Congress might act on some specific issues, but by and large, change is being driven by public demand, private industry response to this demand, and pressure on and by local and regional legislatures, rather than from Capitol Hill. Pearl noted that the jury is still out on whether Congress will pass tax incentives for energy efficiency and the use of renewable energy sources.


Court cases

Court cases will clarify the EPA’s authority
Photo by Nancy McGuire

Major decisions on crude oil exports from the U.S. will probably be made through the Commerce Department, said Davenport. Gasoline prices inflame public debates on this issue, but “just the fact that this is even open for debate is new,” she said. Concrete action on this could take years, she said. Tax reform is unlikely to drive energy policy because “we’re so far from true tax reform,” she added.


“Where is the leadership from journalists in raising public awareness?” asked one audience member. The panel members agreed that many editors see environmental issues and legislation as “wonky”. Feature articles on these topics don’t get a lot of response from the readers. “There’s always a fight to get some space on [these stories]”, noted Cheryl Hogue, senior correspondent for Chemical and Engineering News. Suzanne Goldenberg, the U.S. environmental correspondent for The Guardian, explained that big-picture approaches don’t work as well as talking about things that people can do in their homes.


For instance, the Department of Energy is expected to issue new standards on efficiency for appliances and consumer products this year. Douglas Fischer, editor of the Daily Climate and moderator of Friday’s panel, suggested that “smart appliances” might be a good story hook to pique readers’ interest. “More IPCC reports aren’t going to do it,” said Andrew Revkin, the science and environmental author who runs The New York Times blog “Dot Earth”, referring to the International Panel on Climate Change.


Get That Chemical Out of My Product!

One environmental issue that hit home in an immediate way was the recent West Virginia incident, in which coal processing chemicals leaked into municipal water supplies (See this January 21 article in The Charleston Gazette). News reports of this incident may add momentum to reforming TSCA, the Toxic Substances Control Act, said Pearl. On the other hand, the incident could divert energy away from TSCA reform and toward rules on storage tanks, said Hogue. TSCA reform efforts are driven by industry’s desire to reconcile conflicting state regulations, and this may help to keep the focus on the reform effort.


Local governments are out ahead of the federal government in many cases. Hogue referred to New York City’s recent ban on polystyrene foam food containers. (See this recent article in USA Today.)


Public sentiment is driving a push to “get that chemical out of my product,” said Hogue. Manufacturers are striving to do this, but the reasons these chemicals are in consumer products in the first place is to provide some benefit — structural stability, extended shelf life, and the like. Manufacturers must find suitable substitutes for the chemicals they remove from their products.


Often, these efforts are led by the companies themselves, and they use “new and improved” claims to market their products. Hogue described an effort by large chain stores, including WalMart and Whole Foods, to drive these efforts forward, a phenomenon sometimes referred to as “retail regulation”.


This is the first in a four-part series on the January 24 briefing, “The Year Ahead in Environment and Energy”. Upcoming topics: Coal: Politics and Power Supplies, Keystone Capers and Ocean Issues, and A World of Slow Drips.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Last in a three-part series on unmanned vehicles
(see Part 1 and Part 2)

NASA parrot drone

The Parrot flying AR Drone can be flown using an iPhone or iPad. Photo: NASA/Sean Smith

At present, unmanned aerial vehicles — “drones” in the popular parlance — are used for military surveillance and strikes, civilian environmental and wildlife monitoring, and scientific research purposes. Private citizens use remotely operated toy airplanes and helicopters for entertainment, and sometimes to spy on their neighbors. (“So This Is How It Begins: Guy Refuses to Stop Drone-Spying on Seattle Woman” by Rebecca J. Rosen, The Atlantic, May 13 2013)

“What we don’t have now is tabloid paparazzi drones chasing celebrities, pizza delivery drones enticing packs of dogs Pied Piper-like down the street, or advertising drones cluttering the night sky. This could change after September 2015, the deadline given in the 2012 FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) Modernization and Reform Act for the full integration of unmanned aircraft into the National Airspace System — the common area that begins a few hundred feet above your back yard (the FAA has several definitions of just where this begins). The new FAA rules will apply only to drones flying below 400 feet (122 meters) and weighing less than 55 pounds (25 kg). (“Uncertainties remain as FAA integrates drones into American skies” by Josh Solomon, McClatchy, April 29, 2013)

Current privacy and public safety laws cover much of the mischief that weaponized or camera-bearing drones could do. However, any new technology enables new dangerous and annoying misuses that aren’t covered in existing laws, simply because they weren’t possible before.

Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ) summarized some of the legislative and policy challenges facing expanded drone use at “The Drone Next Door“, a May 7 seminar in Washington, DC, put on by the Future Tense consortium: The New America Foundation, Arizona State University, and Slate (Twitter hashtag #FTdrones).  Gosar stated that he supports Second Amendment (right to bear arms) and individual privacy rights, but that the implications of new drone capabilities must be “fleshed out”.

Do we even have a Constitutional framework for something like this? “I think so,” he said. Legislators must “break the Constitution into simple parts, and address this as personal responsibility.” But do 2nd Amendment rights apply to remotely operated vehicles? “We’re having that conversation. It needs to be open to the public and make sense to the public,” Gosar said.

Still to be determined is who regulates this aspect of drones. Is it the FAA (whose mandate includes public safety, but not privacy rights)? Is this the domain of local police departments? Is it legal for me to shoot down my neighbor’s drone if it flies over my property? The consensus of several panel speakers at the Future Tense event was that privacy issues will probably be hashed out in the civil and criminal courts over a period of years as specific cases arise.

Drone Drivers

Determining the degree of human oversight is a safety issue, but it’s also a public support issue. People are naturally uncomfortable with a machine making the decision whether to pull the trigger on a weapon (autonomous lethality). But more benign applications must win the public’s trust as well before they can be adopted widely. Self-parking cars are on the market today, and Google tested a driverless car (with a human in the driver’s seat just in case) in Manhattan on April 2 of this year.

One driverless car running over a three-year-old could “shut down the industry” according to Missy Cummings, MIT associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics, and a former Navy fighter pilot. “Google cars slipped in while we were stressing over UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles], but they are more likely to hurt you,” she said. Personal air vehicles might be on the horizon, and this will bring up further safety issues.

Michael Toscano, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, disagreed with this assessment, stating that government and industry leaders must emphasize how autonomous vehicles bring down the rate of auto accidents overall. Automated navigation takes human reaction time, emotional states, boredom, and distraction out of the equation. This will be especially important in dealing with cognitive decline as our population ages. He also noted that if your car drives itself, it doesn’t matter if its passengers can’t resist the urge to send text messages from the road. Safety and accountability are paramount when determining the necessary degree of human oversight, Toscano said.

Peeping Drones

At present, private citizens in the U.S. have more leeway to spy on each other than does the government because of regulatory restrictions, according to Daniel Rothenberg, a law professor at Arizona State University.

“Could the government do an end run around these restrictions by encouraging citizens to spy on each other?” asked ACLU staff attorney Catherine Crump. In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, local authorities asked bystanders to provide cell phone photos to help identify suspects. How far could law enforcement agencies take their requests for citizens to monitor and report each other? Lawsuits will drive the development of legal guidelines and restrictions on citizen surveillance, Crump said.

Where drone surveillance differs from past incursions on personal privacy, Crump continued, is that the public is finding out about drones as the technology is rolling out. In contrast, the general public found out about the extent of personal data collection done by Google, FaceBook, and other online platforms only after their systems were fully in place and had been operational for some time.

Crump cites an “opportunity to get in on the ground level” with privacy protection regulations for drones. In the U.S., it’s typical for legislation to be implemented sector by sector, enabling the development of a drone-specific body of laws. This requires that law enforcement agencies have a specific purpose in cracking down on specific activities, and that they be able to demonstrate that such restrictions are beneficial to society overall.

Drawing the Lines

Unmanned aerial vehicles in the domestic airspace should be required to broadcast an ID signal and conform to traffic control and limitations on functionality, noted Matthew Waite, founder of the Drone Journalism Lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Fellow panelist Joseph Hall, of the Center for Democracy and Technology, cited a need to strike a balance between a chaotic patchwork of customized state and local regulations and an unworkable one-size-fits-all regime. Captain Don Roby of the Baltimore County Police Department urged engagement with communities to find out what citizens are willing to accept.

Roby predicted that as more and more businesses find application for unmanned vehicles, the price will start to come down, spurring even wider adoption. “It’s like the PC revolution,” he said. Hall cautioned that not everyone will have the skills to pilot the larger drones, which he referred to as “flying lawnmowers” because of their helicopter-like rotors.

How will regulators know where to draw the lines? Waite suggested that regulations should be relaxed somewhat before the full integration of commercial drones, in order to experiment and see how things work out. Hall proposed an open-source community of hobbyists posting their experiences and test results.

Overall, the panelists agreed that current laws cover many of the issues surrounding privacy, property rights, probable cause for persistent surveillance, and how long data may be retained. Crump and Rothenberg noted that recent court cases have tackled the limits of remote surveillance using, for example, GPS units surreptitiously affixed to a suspect’s car or heat sensors monitoring activity inside a suspect’s home. The “war on terrorism” has prompted extensive debate over the distinction between civilian law and the law of war. Drones could potentially collect information on “patterns of life” tracking people’s habits and routines 24 x 7, but the concerns this introduces has less to do with the actual drone technology than with the privacy issues arising from new surveillance capabilities.

“Technology is an equal-opportunity enabler,” write Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen in their bookThe New Digital Age. It empowers diplomats and terrorists alike. (“Turn on, log in, opt out?” by Lauren Kirchner, Columbia Journalism Review, May 1, 2013) The drone plane providing the dramatic aerial shots of your kid’s wedding could come back and peek through your bathroom window tomorrow. The main issue isn’t the technology itself, but how we choose to use it.

What Is a Drone?

Second posting in a three-part series (see previous post)

Recent news stories have familiarized us with military drones bearing names like Predator and Reaper. Popular television shows feature tiny spy drones, conjuring images of CIA black ops. You could be forgiven for assuming that drones are a new and pernicious misuse of government power. But what are drones, really, and how are they being used?

The word “drone” is a popular term for any one of several types of unmanned vehicles that fly, swim, or travel over land. Most drones have some type of human guidance, whether it’s a kid at the other end of the kite string or a soldier or sailor sitting at a control panel hundreds of miles away. The variety of functions and capabilities is reflected in a menagerie of abbreviations: UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle), UAS (unmanned aerial system), RPV (remotely piloted vehicle), ROV (remotely operated vehicle), RPA (remotely piloted aircraft), UUV (unmanned underwater vehicle), and the list goes on.

Unmanned ground vehicles range from the Roomba automated vacuum cleaner to DARPA’s Big Dog robotic “pack animal”. REMUS vehicles (Remote Environmental Monitoring UnitS, operate underwater, taking orders from a human at a simple laptop computer or traversing a preprogrammed route. REMUS vehicles have patrolled Puget Sound, monitoring the temperature and salinity of the water. Specially adapted REMUS vehicles have surveyed New York City’s public water mains to check for leaks.

Aerial drone use is certainly not new. You might say that Benjamin Franklin used a drone kite to carry his metal key aloft during his experiments with lightning.

Oil burn experiment

1993 Newfoundland Oil Burn Experiment (Canadian Coast Guard photo)

More recently, miniature helicopters known as ROVs (remotely operated vehicles) flew through a smoke plume and monitored the air during the 1993 Newfoundland Offshore Burn Experiment, a collaboration between the U.S. and Canada in which a contained oil spill was set on fire in order to observe the effects on the surroundings and examine the after-products. (The helicopter in the photo at right is a full-sized, passenger-carrying helicopter carrying support crew for this event.) The Predator drones used in military operations are about the size of a glider plane. Some military surveillance drones are small enough for one person to launch by throwing them into the air (photo below). The U.S. Army is funding development work on hummingbird-sized drones that can fly into small spaces and avoid being noticed.

hand launched drone

Pvt. Patrick Hernandez practices launching a RQ-11B Raven. (USDOD photo by Pamela Redford, Fort Riley Public Affairs)

The Drone Next Door“, a May 7 Future Tense presentation at the New America Foundation (Twitter #FTdrones), focused on aerial drones. These unmanned vehicles operate with various degrees of autonomy. Automated aerial drones can operate without a human steering them, but they follow a specific set of instructions: fly this high, go that fast, travel this far in a specified direction. Autonomous drones can operate independently, executing a mission while making its own decisions under uncertain circumstances: locate and retrieve a specific package, but find your own way past any obstacles and recover from any mishaps you might encounter on the way.

Flying cameras are old technology, said Missy Cummings, associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, and one of the U.S. Navy’s first female fighter pilots. What’s new about drones is their ability to make aerial imaging cost effective. The main limitations for drone-mounted sensors are weight and power requirements.

Is there any way of avoiding drone surveillance? Cummings facetiously mentioned anti-UAV hoodies. She noted that for every technology, there is an anti-technology. The Navy is very concerned with GPS denial technology, and is working to develop a drone that does not rely on GPS for navigation. Michael Toscano, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, noted that signal interference, intentional or not, could pose a safety issue by disorienting the drone and possibly causing it to crash.

Drones are in widespread use for military operations, but are we in danger of being overrun with drones once their commercial use becomes legal in the U.S.? Konstantin Kakaes, a Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation, cited several examples where military technologies failed to make the transition to the civilian world. Nuclear-powered airplanes and nuclear explosions as excavation tools never caught on. President Kennedy pushed for supersonic passenger jets, but the Concorde was a European project, and it was not a commercial success. One success story, GPS navigation, was not predicted to make the transition from military-only use. It succeeded because it provided unique capabilities, and the price came down as it became more widely used.

The KMAX, and unmanned cargo helicopter, proved useful in the remote regions of Afghanistan, but it was not as useful in the U.S. Barriers to technology adoption include production costs and infrastructure requirements such as refueling stations, said Kakaes. A technology that provides a unique capability in a remote, primitive, or hazardous area could lose out to cheaper and better competitors in a modern city.

Drones could, however, prove themselves useful in an urban setting if they could effectively increase capabilities and reduce costs for search and rescue missions (finding survivors of a building collapse, for example), crime scene investigation, traffic accident reporting, and missing person searches, according to Captain Don Roby of the Baltimore County Police Department.

Current FAA rules prohibit commercial use of drones, but under the new rules in 2015, they could reduce costs for traffic reporting and monitor environmental changes, said Matthew Waite, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor who founded the Drone Journalism Lab. Waite was not especially concerned about the possibility of airborne paparazzi on every street corner in the near future. “Journalists are horrible pilots,” he said, citing his and his students’ misadventures.

What about scientific research? “Cost is the biggest hurdle for science,” said Robbie Hood, Director of Unmanned Aerial Systems at NOAA. You’re looking at established technology, she said, with the UAV as just another observing system, a “force multiplier for science”. Satellites can provide snapshot views of the ground below, but UASs can stay with a weather system as it develops, providing a more detailed picture. This could enable NOAA to observe a hurricane as it first forms over the open ocean. As climate change opens up shipping lanes in the Arctic, drones will monitor shipping activity, oil spills, and detailed weather reporting that could help prevent ship strandings.

Carter Roberts, president and CEO of the World Wildlife Fund, described how airborne drones are being used to monitor political unrest in areas where sensitive wildlife populations could be harmed. Drones also check for poaching activity, which WWF reports to the governments of the affected areas. Drones provide more immediate feedback than satellite collars, which can cost $10,000 each. Transmitter chips attached to an animal can send text messages to drones overhead much more cheaply. Thermal imaging can be used to reveal the presence of poachers at night, when they are most active. This opens up the possibility of pre-empting the poachers before they make their kill.

Previous post: Don’t Drone Me, Bro 

To come: Hashing it all out: How will we deal with the practical effects of having more unmanned vehicles in our daily lives?

Don’t Drone Me, Bro

by Nancy McGuire (

Don't Drone Me, Bro


Drones Make Enemies

(Washington, DC) A quick news search on the word “drone” pulls up associated words including “strike”, “attack”, “secrecy”, and “protest”. Polls and surveys indicate that the word “drone” triggers an anxious response, based on military-heavy news coverage and fears of the various things that drones have come to symbolize. Often, these responses are based on factors not specific to the drones themselves government intrusion, loss of privacy, possibility of attack.

These points surfaced throughout the day during “The Drone Next Door“, a May 7, 2013, event hosted by Future Tense. Speakers and panels including journalists, legislators, academics, think tank fellows, representatives from industry and advocacy organizations, law enforcement officers, and scientific researchers discussed all things drone-related: what are they used for now, how are they likely to be used in the near future, and what does this mean for ordinary people at home and abroad.

Future Tense is a collaboration comprising Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. The small auditorium at New America Foundation’s Washington, DC office suite was packed with journalists, policy specialists, hobbyists, and other interested parties, with more people watching via webcast and C-SPAN. Pithy quotes and amusing anecdotes lit up the Twitterverse at @FutureTenseNow #FTdrones.

The May 7 event focused on unmanned aerial vehicles, what most people associate with the word “drone”. These range in size from the airplane-sized Predators to sparrow-sized helicopter toys to robotic flies (still under development). Most of these drones rely on human pilots at the far end of a physical tether or sending radio signals from a remote control station.

Will Salatan, national correspondent for Slate, opened the session with a summary of polls and surveys designed to measure public support for using drone vehicles in various situations. Unsurprisingly, the phrasing of the questions influenced the answers that people gave. More people were willing to support drone strikes abroad if they were authorized by “the U.S.” rather than “The President”, indicating discomfort with the idea of authority resting with one person. People indicated support for antiterrorism missions and military uses than for things like local law enforcement. The overall sense was that it’s OK to monitor “them” but not “us”, Salatan said. A significant number of people claimed that they would shoot down a drone flying over their property. (Unless it was delivering beer, a potential commercial application that was mentioned later in the day.)

Does having more information increase public support for using drones? If it’s a military application, the answer is yes, said Salatan. For domestic uses overall, having more information doesn’t increase support. This varies when you break it down to specific cases. People tend to view search and rescue operations, drug law enforcement, and immigration law enforcement more favorably than surveillance of suspected criminals (we might get caught in that net), and we really don’t want drones photographing our car as we speed through a school zone.

When people aren’t worrying about unmanned vehicles “raining down death out of the sky” (another phrase that popped up during the day), they stress out over Big Brother peering into their daily activities. Why do people freak out over drones more than social media or credit card companies, voracious collectors of your data? Much of this reaction has to do with the well-publicized military and CIA surveillance applications, according to law professor Daniel Rothenberg of Arizona State University’s School of Politics and Global Studies.

Commercial and government snooping make the news, but usually long after the fact. There’s a sense that you can’t do much about this type of data collection. Government spy drones are “over there”, and we don’t necessarily want them coming home. There is a sense that it’s still early enough in the game to push back against drones doing domestic surveillance.

Under current FAA rules, it’s illegal to use a drone in the United States for commercial purposes. This is slated to change in September 2015, the deadline that Congress has given the FAA to come up with a plan for integrating commercial UAVs to the domestic airspace. Some local governments have already enacted legislation restricting drone use for law enforcement purposes.

There was no consensus at the May 7 event as to how various local and state regulations would affect the FAA’s plan. The FAA’s mandate covers safety issues, not personal privacy, but it would be very difficult to treat these aspects as completely separate, several of the panelists noted. Many of the practicalities will be worked out case by case in the civil and criminal courts, the panelists agreed.

Toward the end of the day, Rothenberg summed up the current situation: “It may not be a rational debate, but at least we’re having the debate.”

More to come
Technology: How are we using unmanned vehicles now, and how will we be using them in the near future?
Hashing it all out: How will we deal with the practical effects of having more unmanned vehicles in our daily lives?

What the Drone Debate Is Really About (Daniel Rothenberg, May 6, in Slate)
The Golden Age of Privacy Is Over (Brad Allenby, April 30, in Slate)
Will Bureaucracy Keep the U.S. Drone Industry Grounded? (Martin Kaste, April 30, National Public Radio)

Can We Talk?

(Reprinted from Flying Lessons:

My year off is officially over. I’m still at home, but I’m actively looking for work. Maybe that will be a job in the conventional sense of the word, or maybe it will be a more creative way to bring in income. I’m not sure. I’ve tried telling myself that I ought to be checking the job ads more assertively, mailing brochures to potential clients, making cold calls and all. But it just doesn’t feel right. I have chastised myself, telling myself to just get over my inertia and start the wheels moving again. Don’t be such an introvert, I say. Which is kind of like telling myself to stop having such blue eyes or stop being so short.

I have found a much better source of motivation, though. It comes through in the morning when I am writing in my journal — or sometimes at 3AM when I am wishing that I could get back to sleep. In the deep stillness of my room, little ideas make their way to the surface. Concrete, definite actions that I could take. Actions with energy and enthusiasm behind them. Actions based on what I do naturally, what I enjoy, what gives me satisfaction.

There’s a stillness born of time away from the daily commute, the meetings and deadlines and periods of boredom interspersed with crises. In that space has come an appreciation of things that I have been doing for years, but have not integrated into the way I make my living. With that realization has come a desire to more fully integrate the marketable skills with the calling of what is most important to me.

I have come to acknowledge more fully my talent for talking about scientific and technical issues in language that is engaging and easy to understand. I might not get the story first, but I get it in context and I do my best to get it right. That’s a real talent. It’s much harder than summarizing one’s research in the specialized language of one’s own field. It goes beyond opening up a stream of data in the hopes that the more information you throw at people, the more likely they are to come around to your point of view. It’s very different from “dumbing it down”. Good science writing requires me to respect my reader’s intelligence and convey an accurate, nuanced picture in language that is both precise and accessible.

Good science writing is an act of empathy. When I’m conducting interviews for an article, I have to do my homework ahead of time to know who it is I’m talking to and have some basic knowledge of their work. I don’t want to waste this person’s time asking basic questions that could be answered easily with a little online research. It’s incumbent on me to know and convey to the person I’m interviewing the purpose of the article I’m writing and to ask for information that makes my article into something worth reading. I’m responsible for communicating to my source just why it is that he or she is exactly the person who can best help me learn and convey the specific information I’m going after.

I have to use my skills in asking questions to encourage my sources to talk about the most interesting, relevant, or important parts of their work. I have to listen carefully to what my sources are telling me. I can’t assume that I know in advance what they are going to say. I can’t shape their answers into what I think they should have said. I can’t be reluctant to ask for clarification — even if I think I understand what they meant to say. This requires a certain humility on my part — a willingness to relinquish any concept of myself as an expert and to let my sources speak for themselves. My expertise comes in organizing and conveying the voices of all my sources as accurately and understandably as possible.

Empathy requires me to know something about the audience I’m writing for. What this audience is most interested in might not be the same thing that most interests my sources. Depending on the type of article I’m writing, I might have to spend some time educating my audience, but I can’t be overly didactic without losing their attention. Everyone is busy these days, and a multitude of information sources compete for my reader’s attention. I have to make it worth my reader’s time to read my writing. I have to show my readers something new or present a different point of view on something familiar. Some part of what I say has to be relevant to the world they inhabit.

I have to be trustworthy. If I come across as selling a particular point of view or advocating for a particular cause, I might capture the attention of those who already agree with me. But I will lose those readers who disagree with me — the very readers who might have an “aha!” moment or engage others in a constructive dialogue after having read my article. On the other hand, false balance is just as misleading as blind advocacy. On some issues (climate change is one notable example), the scientific consensus is so strong that giving equal weight to a small opposing minority is a distortion of the facts.

Trustworthiness also requires clarity. “Baffle them with bullshit” is not an acceptable approach here. Few intelligent readers come away convinced that because an issue is presented in dense technical prose, it must be important and correct. On the other hand, talking down to one’s readers, using lazy metaphors, or affecting a false hipness only makes the writer look incompetent. The goal is to convey a message and convey it well.

Conveying a message also requires an understanding that we are not completely rational beings. Two reasonably sane, intelligent, well-intentioned people can look at the same set of facts and draw very different conclusions. We all operate within our own social, historical, and experiential frameworks, and we interpret what we see accordingly. A good writer must provide enough context and perspective to inform, but not overwhelm, her readers.

Our emotions affect how we react to information, whether or not we are aware of it. Thus, humor, diplomacy, and yes, empathy are far more than ways to “spice up” an article. They are necessary elements in connecting with one’s audience and opening a space for dialogue — or perhaps drawing the lines for battle.

The work I enjoy best draws on all these skills, but some of my previous jobs have required a “just-the-facts” approach. For some purposes, that’s enough. An activity report for a government agency is not the right place to hone one’s skills in humorous narrative nonfiction. But since I have all of these skills, it’s up to me to find an outlet for them. Leave the cut-and-dried work to those who excel at it.

Lately, I’ve been exploring social media (FaceBook, Twitter, and the like) as a means of staying in touch with the people I’ve met through my travels, career, and various stages of my life. This has evolved into a means of conversing with people whom I have never met face-to-face, but with whom I share common interests and affinities. I’m exploring the nuances of brief written communications and asking myself how well it is possible to know another person through electronic interaction alone. Electronic communities are changing the way we understand friendship and the way information (or misinformation) spreads.

Increasingly, interest groups, businesses, and other organizations use these channels to shape what we think and how we talk to each other in ways that go far beyond the pop-up ads and “you might be interested in…” suggestions. Skilled communicators realize that this is where their audience is, and they seek out the people they want to reach in this way. Perhaps the entire message can be conveyed right there on the spot. Perhaps a brief note on Twitter alerts readers to a more detailed account elsewhere. Perhaps flinging an idea into the fray sparks a conversation or elicits a wealth of crowd-sourced information, an exchange of diverse points of view. In any case, it’s a matter of going out and engaging in dialogue with readers where they are rather than passively waiting in the backwaters of the information stream.

If this is so interesting to me in my personal interactions, why not investigate ways to build this into my profession as a science writer? After all, one of the reasons I took 2012 as a year off was to discover ways of integrating the various values and interests I have into a means of supporting myself while contributing something worthwhile to the world.

Signal to Noise Ratios

turn down the noise

Photo by Nancy McGuire

Back to the science metaphors today. I got to thinking about how radically I have emptied out my schedule this year, and how it’s helping me pay attention to things too long ignored. Improving the signal-to-noise ratio, as it were.

Right after grad school, I spent three years as a postdoc at Los Alamos National Lab. I was studying the way that surfaces influence the structure of thin coatings, to see if you could set up a surface that could direct a thin film to form with the properties you wanted. In order to pick up any kind of a signal at all on my instruments, I had to start out with substrate materials that had a whole lot of surface area, just to have enough of the thin film to make a detectable signal.

I had to make sure that the substrate surface was as clean as humanly possible, to eliminate interference from contaminants — including air. For every sample I made, I had to start by baking my substrate material at a high temperature, under vacuum. This required custom-built glass furnace tubes that had to be made in the lab’s glass shop, by the resident glass-working experts. My fellow researchers showed me how to set up the furnace and vacuum pump setup, and they clued me in on putting a cold trap between the two parts, so that pump oil would not back-flow into the furnace tube. They also told me that the copper coil I needed for this could be found at a local auto supply store.

After I baked out my samples, I had to close off the glass tube and transfer it to one of those big glove boxes that you may have seen on TV shows where people are working in a lab. The man in charge of keeping the glove box maintained had very large hands, so the gloves were sized to fit him. I have very small hands, so I had to learn to manipulate tiny tweezers and allen wrenches using thick rubber gloves that were several sizes too big for me.

Coating the sample surface was an exercise in patience. Meter in a little gas, let it condense onto the surface, wait for things to settle down, meter in a little more, repeat. Do this until the gas pressure gauge shows that no more gas is condensing down onto the surface. This sometimes took hours. Once, I tried to put two layers down on a surface, and I stayed at it for 36 hours straight before I finally gave up.

After I collected data from my instrument, I used a computer program (written by another colleague) to tease out the tiny signal from the thin film from the much larger signal from my supporting surface. Another computer program would interpret the resulting pattern, but the specific material I was studying hadn’t been studied much as a thin film, so I had to piece together what I could from existing information and make reasonable assumptions.

I did manage to put together a general picture of what the surfaces were doing to the thin films. It’s been almost 25 years, and others have gone much farther than this than I could.

What I’m getting at is this. In order to see anything at all out of this year-long experience of mine, I had to set up a situation in which I had a lot of time just for me — my supporting substrate surface. I had to clear out any interfering noise from this time — residual stress from a long day at work and commuting, much of my extracurricular activity, anything that would take away from what I’m trying to find. After the initial clearing-out, I had to protect my time from re-contamination. Only then could I begin to let in the things that I want to pay attention to.

I’m getting a lot of advice and assistance from friends and colleagues, but ultimately, I’m having to put this thing together myself. And now that little hints of answers are starting to come in, I’m having to try and make sense of what I’m finding out. Looking at what other people have done is giving me a general direction, but ultimately, I’m having to take what I can find and make some reasonable assumptions about the rest.

Very slowly, a little pattern is starting to emerge from the background. Other people may do this more elegantly or simply, but this is my project, and I am having to put together an answer that applies to me. The learning how to do it, the actual process of doing it, and the friends and mentors I’m meeting along the way are just as important (if not more so) than whatever answers I may come up with.

Reprinted from Flying Lessons blog, which I also write. (