Monticello nuclear plant leak took five months to make the news

A wastewater leak at the Monticello nuclear plant is headline news in the StarTribune on 16 March 2023, but from a reporter’s perspective, perhaps the larger issue is that the issue has been unfolding for five months or more, without a serious effort to brief the public.

Improving the media response time for incidents like this an open problem. The nuclear factor especially serves to decrease the amount of information shared with the public.

Fission power is relatively clean in many respects, but it comes with downsides like these. Tritium in the water is not great. It is a manageable problem, but it shouldn’t happen with properly designed reactors, if for no other reason than Tritium has economic value as a useful beta emitter for things like glowsticks and wristwatches. It’s also potentially a fusion reactor fuel – and the Fargo Orbit will have more on that topic to share later this month.

Coronavirus information

FiveThirtyEight has published an excellent summary of what every person needs to know about COVID-19, which is updated frequently.

Vaccines are widely available in the US and Canada for walk-in service at medical providers and pharmacies. Many areas are still operating dedicated immunization clinics. Vaccines are safe and effective, including against the omicron variant of concern. Vaccines are now available for all age groups.

As of June 2022, travel restrictions have largely ended for travellers with up-to-date vaccinations. Be ready to show proof of vaccination when crossing national borders. Canada also requires use of the ArriveCAN app or website.

Continue reading “Coronavirus information”

How to build science literacy and respect

Jenny Dauer of the University of Nebraska and Noah Feinstein of the University of Wisconsin participated in a discussion of how to boost science literacy and engagement at the AAAS virtual conference on 20 February 2022.

Noah Feinstein engages on rebuilding public respect for science at AAAS, 20 Feb 2022. (AAAS)

Rather than repeat common platitudes like “trust science”, Feinstein goes much further, first establishing confidence in why he is qualified to speak on the topic of science literacy, and then covering many of the ways science institution have been actively undermined among the general public.

Feinstein’s talk clearly addresses the weaknesses that science both has, and appears to have, and asks the public not necessarily to blindly trust, but to show “appropriate respect” for the knowledge generated by science, and to forgive some of the imperfections in scientific institutions, traits shared by all human endeavours.

Jenny Dauer shows how to teach science literacy at the AAAS conference, 20 Feb 2022. (AAAS)

Dauer covers how to educate college students to approach scientific decisionmaking, even in highly controversial environments. The University of Nebraska offers a course called Science Literacy 101, where students Students thereby receive valuable tools to incorporate systems analysis and science literacy into their future leadership.

Dauer also delves into the complexity of teaching students with certain ideas or positions that are ensconced in their personal identities, and discusses some approaches to better engage them to improve their receptiveness to new science that conflicts with their worldviews.

The two talks were part of a three-talk session presented at the AAAS conference, “Learning about Science Literacy from the Covid-19 Pandemic”, which moderated by Felicia Kessing of Bard College. The third talk in the session, on science engagement with disaffected communities, was given by Raj Pandya of the American Geophysical Union.

mtDNA helped foresters during Toronto beetle battle

In 2003, a humble cargo pallet set off a 17-year battle that struck at the heart of the Canadian identity. Larvae of the Asian Longhorn Beetle had emerged from their slumber deep inside the cheap timber and found their way into maple trees in Vaughan, Ontario, just a short distance from Toronto, the home of the Maple Leafs.

Dr. Amanda Roe (Natural Resources Canada / Algoma U) lectures 03 Mar 2021 on regional variations in mitochondrial DNA in the Asian Longhorn Beetle, comparing native range and invasion sites.

Dr. Amanda Roe is a researcher in molecular and functional ecology at Natural Resources Canada’s Great Lakes Forestry Centre, and a part-time lecturer at Algoma University in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. Dr. Roe lectured on 3 March during Algoma U Research Week 2021 on the work scientists around the world are doing to control the spread of the Asian Longhorn Beetle, a species native to Asia that is a pest in Europe and North America.

Though Asian Longhorn Beetles are seldom seen on the bark of trees, the distinctive holes they make as they burrow through the tree, plus their fairly large size (~35mm) and their speckled body colour makes their presence fairly easy to spot. The beetle populations are also reasonably slow-moving, reproducing only once per year. This allows the relevant authorities – in this case, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Natural Resources Canada – to simply ban firewood movement in the area, identify affected trees, then cut down and burn any nearby tree the beetle might inhabit.

But where, precisely, are these beetles coming from? Molecular ecology makes it possible to go a step farther, and identify the home area that invasive species may have come from. Scientists do this by looking at mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA). Unlike nuclear DNA, mitochondrial DNA does not change due to an individual’s parents, but mtDNA does accumulate distinctive variations that can identify members of the same extended family or region.

Scientists have collected an mtDNA database of Asian Longhorn Beetles across their home range in China and Korea, a database that shows distinct geographic variations. So, when the same mtDNA tests are done on a captured beetle from an invasive infestation, the tests can help identify which general region the invader is from. The infestation in Vaughan likely originated from coastal regions of northeastern China or Korea.

Perhaps more importantly, it can help researchers pick up the pieces when initial control measures were ineffective. After the Vaughan invasion had been largely controlled, there was another outbreak of ALB in Mississauga. mtDNA tests showed that the second site was a satellite of the original invasion from Vaughan.

mtDNA can’t do everything, of course: a CSI-style trackback from mtDNA data, leading to a particular shipment or pallet supplier, is science fiction, partly because very few warehouse workers actually catch a beetle in the act of wriggling free. As plastic or metal replacements are also fairly expensive, the simple, cheap solution to the pallet problem is heat treatment and an ISPM-15 stamp.

Following a generation-long struggle that concluded with five years of carefully looking through trees in Toronto and Mississauga for any re-emergence of the pest, CFIA finally declared Ontario to be free of the Asian Longhorn Beetle in June 2020. Early detection makes all the difference in preventing future outbreaks of any invasive species, and members of the public can always help by sharing photos and samples of strange insects they find with agricultural extensions, forestry agencies, or research biologists.

Teamwork will get us to Mars

American scientists are always keenly interested in space travel, and the 2021 AAAS Annual Meeting rounded out its coverage of the topic with an 11 February panel on group psychology for Mars missions. The roundtable, moderated by Leslie DeChurch, featured Suzanne Bell and Alexandra Whitmire of NASA, plus scientists Jack Stuster, Noshir Contractor, Dorothy Carter, and Nick Kanas, all of whom have worked with NASA on various projects.

The “Understanding and Enabling Human Travel to the Moon and Mars” panel at the 2021 AAAS Annual Meeting (Speakers/AAAS)

One of the assumptions baked into any trip to the International Space Station, or even the Moon, is fast communications with Mission Control. Ground crew is available 24/7 with instant help for anything from tech support to mundane assistance like verbal confirmation of EVA checklists. But it can’t work like that on a trip to Mars. There could be a 45 minute delay to hear back from Earth. For anything urgent, the astronauts aboard can only turn to each other.

That’s why picking the right mix of people for the team is so critically important. Everyone will need to follow at times, lead other times, be prepared for an emergency, and they will need to be willing to do so all while staring at the same faces every day. For a well-adjusted team, it could be the ultimate road trip. But add a few setbacks, and there might be plenty about the voyage that never makes the history books.

As one panelist said, teams will not just need ‘The Right Stuff’, but will need to be ‘The Right Size’. NASA’s most recent plan to get to Mars anticipates a slow three-year round trip with 4 crew, acknowledged to be a bare minimum. With so much to do, a slowdown or lack of cooperation from anyone at any time could jeopardize the whole mission, and the length of the assignment only increases the chances for something to go wrong. A shorter trip (ideally two years or less) with more crew (perhaps 6) would be much more robust against failings in the human element.

Another way to head off the risk of human factors is by using the latest in social science. Researchers continue to collect data in from, dedicated space travel analog missions, isolated workspaces like Antarctic research stations, and careful review of data from past spaceflights, to glean insights on how people work best when stuck with the same small group. Backed up with the latest in social science and information techniques like lexical analysis and social graphing, group psychologists are their refining statistical models, moving from retrospective analysis of past missions, to future predictions of how well a particular social group will hold together over the long-term. Still, mathematical guesses are no substitute for helpful human personality traits, especially Self-Monitoring, the ability to recognize one’s own effectiveness and interact with the group in an appropriate way for the given situation.

All this research about people cooped up for long periods of time has also hit pay dirt as the social isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic has set in. If you’re looking for insight into how to ride out quarantine with or away from your team, there’s tons of NASA Technical Reports on these matters accessible online!

Should that be growing there?

Montana Tech’s Robert Pál joined Huixuan Liao of Sun Yat-sen University and Manzoor Shah of the University of Kashmir on 9 February for a panel discussion on alpine botany, during the 2021 AAAS Annual Meeting.

Alpine environments are particularly fertile ground for climate change ecology because broad variation in microclimates can be found over a relatively short distance. As temperatures warm, new types of plants may rise above their former range. As moisture patterns change, areas may become better or worse for the growth of certain species. And lurking everywhere is the persistent threat of new and invasive species: non-native plants that spread and grow in manners that negatively impact the local environment, which may be hard to control once they take root.

Due to COVID-19, science conferences have gone fully remote for 2021. (Speakers/AAAS)

The distinction between a fast-spreading non-invasive plant and an invasive species can be hard to pinpoint, but it often depends on whether it monopolizes an area at the expense of the broader ecosystem. Spotting them in the field can require a keen eye; certain invasive grasses can be notoriously hard to identify, even for experts.

When asked about ways invasive plants can be a solution, rather than a pest, Pál cited some concepts in harvesting invasive species as food, or to tap heavy metals out of toxic soils. Liao mentioned that some fast-growing plants can be used to combat coastal erosion.

When it came to encouraging new scientists, Shah said anyone can feel the excitement of a discovery on an ordinary walk, just by looking around their home turf for plants that look new or out of place, and taking samples to send in to the experts. Pál suggests that students looking to get into the field would benefit from learning the kinds of plants that help and harm their local environment, and further study in botany and ecology.

A selection of other work by Dr. Robert Pál can be found at the Montana Tech digital commons. Among others, the USDA and CFIA have further information so anyone can help slow the spread of invasive plants.

BAS: 100 seconds to midnight

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists delivered its 2021 Doomsday Clock session on 27 January. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the program was conducted entirely by remote teleconference.

As always, the Doomsday Clock session is a meaningful watch, and the text report is an equally engaging read. In detail, they explain how humankind has scarcely turned the corner on the dire assessment of 100 seconds to midnight, first issued in 2020.

This year’s live session combined expert insight from The Bulletin’s Science and Security Board with plain talk from statecrafters Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Hidehiko Yuzaki, and Jerry Brown.

Michigan factory sends out first COVID vaccines

Pfizer’s plant in Kalamazoo, Michigan shipped operational doses of a COVID-19 vaccine across the United States on 13 December 2020. UPS and FedEx are carrying the shipments across the United States. Healthcare workers will be among the first to receive the doses.

This follows the FDA’s emergency use approval for the vaccine on the 12th, shortly following Health Canada’s approval on the 9th. The earliest shipments will provide enough doses to vaccinate 124,500 Canadians and 1.5 million Americans. In this phase, health care workers receiving the vaccine will be receiving it nearly immediately. Though procedures will vary, for the moment states and provinces will receive doses, then send out smaller shipments to health facilities. Those facilities have already pre-designated their most at-risk individuals to get the shot as soon as possible, and one additional follow-up dose a few weeks later.

Though the Pfizer vaccine must be shipped and warehoused at -70 C, the temperature of dry ice or specialized medical or scientific ultracold freezers, it has sufficient stability at standard temperatures to still allow for robust distribution options. These issues will not be a problem in the earliest stages of vaccine distribution. As this and other vaccines become more widely available, they will be offered to additional people based on local distribution plans. It will be at this stage that the Pfizer vaccine’s shelf life of a few days at standard -20 C and 4 C refrigeration temperatures is put to a real-world test.

Though work continues on other vaccines, the moment 18-wheelers and airplanes departed West Michigan represents a climactic moment in a banner year for biotechnology, as well as a triumph for science and industry in the Midwest.

Iowa State hosts Women in STEM event series with regional universities

Iowa State is leading a Women in STEM program called “Joining Forces”, alongside North Dakota State, Michigan Tech, and Western Michigan U, funded by the National Science Foundation ADVANCE program.

In addition to mentorship and professional development, there is a 2020 scheduled event series. The first event, on 1 Oct 2020 at 6pm Central Time, is an online groupwatch and discussion on the documentary film Picture a Scientist (film trailer).

To participate, contact the ADVANCE Midwest Partnership at Iowa State University.

Concordia College hosts 2020-2021 quadcopter challenge

Concordia College in Moorhead will lead the Minnesota Space Grant Consortium 2020-2021 Quadcopter Exploration-Flying Challenge. The program will provide vehicles, materials, and training in electronics and small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, drones) for participating college and university teams, all in a format that will not require students to travel away from their home campuses.

The 2019-2020 program did not finish quite as planned, though some of its progress can be reviewed at that year’s webpage.

Concordia College is also the home of other innovations, such as a 58-credit focus in astrophysics which consists entirely of meditations in differential equations – a typo that any student of physics might feel is all too true!

A summary of Astrophysics studies at Concordia. (Concordia C)

College and University teams of 4 to 6 members, plus advisor, that wish to participate in the quadcopter challenge may contact Thelma Berquó at Concordia College by 30 September 2020. Bon vents!