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Nashua;81.0;;2015-07-05 19:30:29

Uber has ruined geeky use of the word "uber"

The Joy of Tech webcomic, which I have been reading for - I dunno, more than a decade, at least - put its finger on something that has been bothering me: How the crowd-sourced taxi company Uber has ruined the use of the German word "uber" in a jokingly geeky way, as in "he's an uber-geek".

Check it out here, and see if you don't agree.

Modifying bacteria on our skin may fool mosquitoes into not biting us

I have never heard of "quorum sensing," which bacteria use to communicate with each other, until I read this Smithsonian article, which talks about how researchers are testing whether affecting quorum sensing in bacteria on our skin might fool mosquitoes into not biting us.

Evolutionarily speaking, quorum sensing has always occurred in nature, and mosquitoes have evolved the ability to perceive these communications pathways via natural selection. Mosquitoes benefit from this hacking by gleaning information about the quality of a blood host and being selective about who they target. But the bacterial communication pathways continue to evolve, resulting in a race between competing organisms - on one side, bacteria are producing messages, and on the other, mosquitoes are trying to interpret them.

Based on these findings, which are currently being prepared for submission to PLOS One, the team believes that inhibiting bacterial communications could lead to new methods for deterring mosquitoes that would be safer than chemial repellants such as DEET.
The process is complicated - it's not gene manipulation - and the article does a good job in describing it. This is a technology that all of us could root for.

Maine, unlike California, fails to toughen school-vaccine laws

The Portland Press-Herald reports that the legislature in Maine failed to override a veto by the governor of a vaccination bill "that would have required parents opting out on philosophic grounds consult with a medical professional and obtain a signature before being allowed to forgo vaccines for their children." The whole story is here.

In other words, Maine, which has one of the nation's lowest rates of vaccination among schoolchildren, didn't do what California did - toughen school vaccine rules in the face of resurgence of some dangerous but extremely preventable diseases like measles, a return fueled by vaccine avoidance. (As a side note, this Wired story notes that the law makes California a "perfect test lab for vaccine laws" because you'll have similar kids who grew up under different laws.)

New Hampshire has always had a pretty strict law - no "philosophical" exemptions are allowed here - which is why we have good rates of vaccination. Vermont, on the other hand, shows the dark side of its hemp-loving hippie stereotype with a very high rate of vaccine avoidance due to misplaced fears of Big Pharma and Nasty-Sounding Chemicals.

Are forests still acting as carbon sinks? (continued)

Two of the major questions about climate change are: how much carbon dioxide pollution are forests mopping up, and will this capacity shrink over time?

I mentioned this question in a recent column about UNH-led programs integrating satellite imagry and demographic data to better understand how forests in the Northeast are coping with development and climate change (read it yourself - right here). But we're not alone in wondering, as a recent story in the journal Nature makes clear;

Getting an accurate reading on the status of Earth's forests is hard because scientists cannot wrap measuring tapes around the roughly 400 billion trees scattered across the planet. So researchers are exploring ways to track forest growth more efficiently, using planes and satellites. And they are feeding all of their data into sophisticated computer models that are designed to forecast how trees will respond in the future.

Such forest measurements are sorely needed as nations wrestle with how to slow climate change. Some plans call for wealthy governments or private companies to pay poorer nations in return for safeguarding the carbon in their forests. With a major international climate negotiation approaching later this year, and billions of dollars in forest payments potentially on the table, scientists are racing to advise countries and other stakeholders about just how much carbon trees are storing, and how long that carbon will stay locked up.

Read the whole story right here.

Geek on the radio: Chatting about 100% renewable energy with NHPR

My weekly chat with NH Public Radio host Peter Biello concerned, as usual, my column - which this week pondered a report about how New Hampshire could be powered 100% by wind, water and sun. (Answer: Almost certainly not, but it's a useful intellectual exercise.)

You can listen to it here. Or you can ready my column here. Or you can do both, of course.

Mercury-reducing upgrade of Portsmouth coal plant will continue, despite Supreme Court ruling

NHPR reports that "New Hampshire’s largest utility says a US Supreme Court ruling which on mercury emissions won’t affect its plans to install pollution controls at its coal-burning plant in Portsmouth." (Story here)

The Concord Monitor has a more detailed story here.

The much larger Merrimack Station plant in Bow already has the controls, installed at an eye-watering price of $450 million and the center of a big fight over disinvestment of power plants. The controls at the Schiller Plant in Portsmouth are much cheaper: $2 million, says NHPR.

Could NH be powered 100% by renewables? Probably not, but it's useful to calculate

I like the lede of my column in today's Telegraph:

Before we get into the interesting question of whether New Hampshire could really be powered by 100 percent renewable energy, let me reassure loyal readers: Even though the group doing the analysis is headed by an A-list actor, the only person I’ll quote is a Stanford University professor.


Community solar project could double N.H. solar power

The Concord Monitor reports of a big proposal from New Hampshire Solar Gardens, an operation I wrote about last year that helps develop community photovoltaic projects:

Seven community solar garden projects throughout (Franklin) would total 8.5 megawatts. That’s more than the total megawatts of residential and commercial solar projects installed across the Granite State in the past seven years. And it’s more than eight times the size of the state’s current largest solar development in Peterborough.

New Hampshire has 8 megawatts of solar energy currently installed, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

The whole story is here.

While this is big for solar in NH, it's small for power production. How small?

Factoring in solar's intermittency (it's capacity factor, technically speaking) this will generate roughly one-third of one-sixth of the annual output of the Northern Wood Project, the coal-turned-to-wood power plant in Portsmouth - and it is just one-third of the Schiller Station power plant, which is one-third the size of the Merrimack Station coal-fired power plant in Bow. So if you're thinking of replacing coal with solar in this state, there's a long long way to go.

On the slip side, this is relatively distributed power, so its indirect cost on the grid is less than adding this output to an existing power plant because it won't require as much transmission-line usage.

Genetically modified wheat doesn't scare away aphids, as researchers hoped

Genetically modifying plants to do certain things is a good idea (in my humble opinion) but like all technologies it doesn't always translate from the lab to the field, as reported by Science magazine.

Researchers had hoped that the wheat modified to emit a warning pheromone would ward off aphids while also attracting their natural enemies, thereby allowing farmers to spray less insecticide. Despite promising signs in the laboratory, the field trial—which made headlines in 2012 after opponents of genetic modification (GM) threatened to obstruct it—failed to show any effect.

“If you make a transgenic plant that produces that alarm continuously, it’s not going to work,” he says. “You have a plant crying wolf all the time, and the bugs won’t listen to it any longer.”

Inspired by science cafes, NHPR tackles probiotics (the big takeaway: eat well, for crying out loud) 

Inspired by Science Cafe NH and Science on Tap, both of which have tackled the topic this year, the statwide call-in show The Exchange on NHPR discussed "the emerging science of probiotics" on Thursday's program - which you can listen to right here.

They snagged an impressive guest: Allan Walker, a nutrition professor at Harvard Medical School who chaired a symposium about emerging research on probiotics last fall.

One of the conclusions: Good diet is the most important factor, by a long shot. Slugging down a probiotic pill or a dose of some specialty food isn't enough.

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About this blog

David Brooks has written a science column for the Nashua (N.H.) Telegraph since 1991 - yes, that long - and has overseen this blog since 2006.

He chats weekly with New Hampshire Public Radio about GraniteGeek topics, around 5:50 p.m. on Tuesdays. You can listen to old sessions here.

Contact:   E-mail or call 603-594-6531.


Free, informal get-togethers at a bar that feature discussion among the audience (everybody is welcome) and experts in various fields. Check the website here.

NEXT CAFE: Wednesday, June 17

TOPIC: Probiotics: Is "gut health" bacteria a fad or a new direction for medicine?

Location: Killarney's Irish Pub, 9 Northeastern Boulevard (Holiday Inn, just west of Exit 4 on the turnpike).



May: Trains. April: Who was here before Europeans arrived - and how do we know? March: How roads are designed. February: The science of sugar. January: Geothermal energy.


November: Medical screening; how much is too much? October: Flexible and printed electronics. September: The science of marijuana. June: Fluoridation in public water. May: Organic gardening. April: Tele-medicine, or doctoring from afar. March: Bitcoin - what is it? February: The science of allergies. January: Electric cars.

Multiple sclerosis. October: Genetically modified organisms. September: Aquaponics. June: Flying robots (drones!) May: PTSD and brain tauma in veterans. April: Cats vs. wildlife in NH. March: Mosquito-borne disease. February: The science of brewing. January: 3-D printing, with MakeIt Labs.

"Dark skies and light pollution" with Discovery Center. October: "The science of concussion." September: "The science of pain management." June: "Arsenic in our environment." May: "Invasive species in New Hampshire" April: "Nanotechnology in business and the lab". March: "Lyme disease in NH". Feb: "Seasonal Affective Disorder." Jan: "Biomass energy"

Nov.: "Science of Polling." Oct.: "Digital Privacy." Sept: "Vaccinations." June: "Future of Food." May 2011: "Climate Change"


Alternative power map

Click here to see my alternative-power Google map showing large-scale solar, wind, hydro and nuclear plants in N.H., plus intriguing alternative-power items.

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