“Science on Screen” to expand nationwide

Great news for scientific cinephiles: the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline announced Tuesday that it has received a two-year, $463,426 grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to expand its popular “Science on Screen” series nationwide.  Since 2005, the program has brought in leading scientists and science writers to host fun, informal pre-screening discussions about the scientific themes and implications of popular films.  The program aims to attract a wide audience, so the selections aren’t niche documentaries or obscure D-movies that only the MST:3000 guys (above) would watch.  On the contrary, it’s an eclectic mix of gems that may not even seem “scientific” at first glance.  No topic is too outlandish for consideration.  According to the Boston Globe, past experts at the Coolidge have discussed everything from bird swarming (in Hitchcock’s The Birds) to zombie anatomy (in Night of the Living Dead) to viral outbreaks (in 12 Monkeys).  The speakers hope to expand the viewer’s horizons by injecting a little “real” science into the usual Hollywood “junk” science.

(Nobody asked me, but future topics I’d love to see covered: the worldwide infertility of Children of Men, the social hierarchies of Gosford Park, the nuclear re-ignition of the sun in Sunshine, how many balloons it would really take to lift the house in Up….just friendly suggestions!)

The Coolidge has a mandate to implement the “Science on Screen” program in 20 independent nonprofit cinemas in 2012, with expansion to another 20 in 2013.  Theaters receiving the grant money will be encouraged to show the winners of the annual Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film prize, which honors outstanding science- and technology-themed films (Another Earth, starring indie fave Brit Marling, took home last year’s award).

Looking ahead at the Coolidge, audiences can learn about time travel from MIT Theoretical Physics director Edward Farhi prior to a screening of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure on January 30.  And on February 20,  Northeastern professor and APA journal editor David DeSteno will discuss morality ahead of Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors.  

The Trees of Life?

It’s relatively easy to be pessimistic about the state of the world’s trees these days.  Dire reports continue to show a decline in overall forest area and a corresponding decrease in natural carbon sequestration.  Acid rain is plaguing trees in the Great Lakes (that, plus Nirvana’s re-release and Newt Gingrich’s brief return to glory had me wondering if we’d entered an early-1990’s time warp).  Drought-fueled forest fires ravaged California and Texas over the summer.  And in a case of unabashed cynicism, congressional Republicans got a slap on the wrist this week for actually taking bets on how many acres will burn each year (8.7 million was the correct figure last year).

But despite all of this, forests can still claim a surprising string of victories in 2011.  In May, a comprehensive study from Finland indicated that worldwide forest density (used in this case as a measure of health and robustness) stayed level or increased on every continent except for Asia.  In Yellowstone National Park, the ascendant grey wolf population has apparently curbed the number of roaming elk herds, giving young trees a better chance of taking root.  Environmental advocates cheered in October when the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the “roadless” rule that limits building in the national parks.  Scientists, for their part, identified bacteria on old-growth trees that may help to sustain a forest’s nutrient balance.  And just last month, researchers at Stanford identified the biological cause of the massive aspen die-offs (often called Sudden Aspen Death syndrome) plaguing the American West.

It remains to be seen whether or not these bits add up to a positive trend or any sense of concerted progress.  But it bears watching in 2012.  I hope to research the issue further and go into greater detail in a future post.

[Film note: the image is not from Terrence Malick’s gorgeous, enigmatic head scratcher but rather 2006’s The Fountain (with Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz).  It was  bombastic, convoluted, and a massive flop for director Darren Aronofsky (who recovered nicely with 2010’s Black Swan).  But it’s visually stunning and admirably ambitious in its attempt to tackle the same cosmic themes five years prior to Malick’s opus.]

Moby-Sick: Sea mammals get the bends, too

Growing up, I heard “the bends” referenced in a non-Radiohead context several times, but the concept didn’t really hit me until I read Gary Smith’s phenomenal 2003 Sports Illustrated cover story, “The Deadly Dive.”  It chronicles the tragic, obsessive free-diving couple Pipin Ferreras and Audrey Mestre, the latter of whom died while attempting to set a world record in 2002.  (The article is unfortunately not online; James Cameron optioned the film rights in 2006, but the project appears to have stalled).  The descriptions of decompression sickness (DCS) and N2 bubbles expanding in the bloodstream had me pressing back into the sofa cushion, sucking in air, queasy with tension.  It also made me realize, bleakly, that no matter how good our technology gets, the human body is unequipped to deal with the crushing depths of the sea.

As it turns out, we’re not alone in that regard.  A new study out this week from the Proceedings of the Royal Society B indicates, somewhat surprisingly, that deep-diving ocean mammals such as whales, seals, and dolphins may not be immune to the effects of  DCS as had been previously assumed.   A number of beached whales and dolphins have shown evidence of nitrogen bubbling in their bones, a telltale sign of rapid pressure change.  Scientists had previously thought that these animals enjoyed biological mechanisms that mitigated or eliminated the effects of the bends.  In fact, it seems that sea mammals simply tailor their behavior to avoid the stress whenever possible.  Whales’ lungs actually collapse below a certain depth, which helps mitigate nitrogen build-up by equalizing the pressure (provided the animal takes a shallower angle upon ascending).   In 2000, the Navy suggested that sonar emissions (which can be mistaken for a predator) might be causing whales and dolphins to adopt unsafe diving patterns.   It’s likely that other emergencies would have a similar effect, weakening the animals over the long term.

This latest development suggests intriguing new avenues of study and opportunities for cross-species comparison.  We’ve only recently gotten a grasp on the physical properties of the bends and why pre-formed N2 bubbles exist in human tissue at all.  In 2007, a University of Houston scientist developed a laser-based imaging device that can be used to diagnose DCS immediately instead of waiting for patients to develop symptoms later on.  The technology could potentially be adapted to monitor DCS symptoms in still-living mammals.  A future longitudinal study might involve tagging a young whale, dolphin, or seal and then periodically checking it for signs of N2 bubbling to assess the effect over time.


Goldman, S. Free energy wells for small gas bubbles in soft deformable materials. The Journal of Chemical Physics, 2010; 132 (16): 164509 DOI: 10.1063/1.3394940

Hooker, SK, et al. Deadly diving? Physiological and behavioural management of decompression stress in diving mammals.  Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 2011; published online before print December 21, 2011, doi:10.1098/rspb.2011.2088

“Laser Can Spot Illness Before Symptoms Appear.”  University of Houston release November 12, 2007;  http://www.uh.edu/uhtoday/archives/2007/november-2007/111207_laserscanspot.php

The rise of “green” concrete

Green Cement

If pressed to name a common substance that, on its face, seems least likely to be eco-friendly, I might choose white Elmer’s glue or Saran-Wrap.  But Portland cement could easily top that list as well.  It is one of the most ubiquitous materials in the world and stands as a basic symbol of industrial development throughout the past two centuries.  Portland cement (which, through sheer market domination, has come to be synonymous with “ordinary” cement) is dirty, dingy, and absolutely essential.  Its manufacturing process is largely unchanged since its creation in England in the early 1800′s.  Concrete is created by blasting raw material (primarily limestone) out of the ground, super-heating it in kilns to separate the elements, and then mixing with water and other carbonates to create a chemically reactive slurry.  This process requires an incredible amount of fuel and industrial infrastructure.  The concrete is stored in silos before eventually being transported to market in that diesel-chugging truck that will inevitably drive in front of you on the highway.  By most measures, every ton of cement produced releases an equivalent ton of C02 emissions – and global consumption rose 9.9% last year.

But “green” concrete’s moment may be nearing.  It features prominently in December’s Smithsonian magazine.   The Calera Corp., based in California, recycles power plant emissions by filtering them through seawater in order to form the carbonate base of cement.   Last year, the startup C-Crete Technologies won the M.I.T. Entrepreneur Competition for its nano-engineered cement that contains emissions.   And Sriya Green Materials, Inc. in Georgia has invested $10 million into a test plant for “small batch” production that uses the same raw materials, but lower temperatures and smaller particles in order to drastically lower energy use and production time.  If all goes according to plan, a 200,000 square foot commercial plant will follow close behind.

The promise is unmistakable: a carbon-neutral building material that could, in theory, remove a primary factor in global warming.  But can concrete really “absorb” CO2?  The companies fostering the boomlet are understandably hesitant to delve into exact details about their methods.  Nikolaos Vlasopoulos, chief scientist at Novacem (the start-up profiled in the Smithsonian article), will only allow that he has experimented with swapping the limestone for a magnesium oxide compound.  This, he says, has the effect of setting the cement’s bonds, trapping the emissions, and eliminating the need to superheat the limestone.  A number of papers currently under peer review are said to be assessing the chemical viability of this new formula.

If the methodology is sound, the biggest remaining question is scaleability.  Companies advancing “green” concrete are reluctant to compare costs to Portland cement at the moment because the latter will continue to be far cheaper until the former can produce at comparable volume.  Achieving that will require huge buy-in from domestic manufacturers in an industry that is known for its caution.  The new innovators will need to overcome durability concerns as well, since traditional Portland cement has the advantage of tried-and-tested market familiarity.

As it happens, green cement may get a timely boost from the United States government.  In 2013, new EPA regulations on mercury emissions are set to take effect.  Since mercury is a byproduct of concrete production, manufacturers will be required to implement carbon capture and storage (CCS) processes to the tune of billions of dollars.  Investors are hoping that, when caught between a rock and a hard place, the cement companies will consider “green” cement as a viable and sustainable long-term alternative instead of simply tacking on stopgap measures to satisfy the new requirements.

Globally, all eyes are on India and China, the dual engines driving a rise in construction even during a time of economic slowdown.  Unlike the U.S., the two countries are unencumbered by regulations and can almost single-handedly keep the price of Portland cement low via prodigious consumption.  China may soon control the cement market inAfrica entirely.  However, China recently agreed to test batches of the “green” concrete in a few of its development projects.  Seeing as it is still in short supply, the material will only be used for “patching” and fixes rather than new construction.  If these early experiments prove successful, entrepreneurs will gain leverage to press for wider adoption.  Until “green” concrete receives a large buy-in, the emerging technology will likely continue to exist on the margins and require R&D capital to keep it afloat.  But recent developments give advocates reason for hope.  As the world seeks radical ways to counteract emissions, the solution may ultimately lie in reinventing one of industrial society’s oldest stand-bys.


Hinshaw, Alex.  “Cement may pave Africa’s road to the future, but will China undercut that, too?”  The Christian Science Monitor.  8/18/2010. http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Africa/Africa-Monitor/2010/0818/Cement-may-pave-Africa-s-road-to-the-future-but-will-China-undercut-that-too

Karkaria, Urvaksh.  ”Startup will build plant to manufacture green cement.”  Atlanta Business Chronicle.  9/13/2010.  http://www.bizjournals.com/atlanta/stories/2010/09/13/story1.html?b=1284350400%255E3919751

Rev, K.R. “Making Cement Green.” Forbes Magazine.  9/20/2010.  http://www.forbes.com/2010/09/17/green-tech-sriya-technology-cement.html

Barringer, Felicity.  ”E.P.A. Cracks Down on Cement Emissions.”  The New York Times.  8/10/2010.  http://green.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/08/10/e-p-a-cracks-down-on-cement-pollution/

De-constructing the Marburg virus

3-D imaging of the Marburg virus budding from infected cells

3-D imaging of the Marburg virus budding from infected cells

It doesn’t get much worse than the Marburg virus. Like its more notorious cousin Ebola, it’s a hemorragic, highly contagious animal-borne pathogen associated primarily with bats and primates.  In humans, symptoms progress quickly from chills and nausea to potentially fatal complications like internal bleeding and organ failure.  Marburg made news most recently in 2007 when a mini-outbreak was contained in Uganda’s gold mining district of Kamwenge. Studying the composition of filoviruses has proven difficult, but German scientists are closer than ever to understanding the structure thanks to sophisticated imaging techniques.  In a new paper at PLoS Biology, Tanmay Bharat and co-authors detail how cryo-electron microscopy (cryoEM) allowed for detailed study of the nucleocapsids.


-Bharat TAM, Riches JD, Kolesnikova L, Welsch S, Krähling V, et al. (2011) Cryo-Electron Tomography of Marburg Virus Particles and Their Morphogenesis within Infected Cells. PLoS Biol 9(11): e1001196. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001196

-Smith, Tara C. Introduction to Marburg: History of Outbreaks.  http://scienceblogs.com/aetiology/2007/08/marburg.php

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