Monday, December 12, 2011

Thoughts of my Lungs and 2-Cycles

Two things are on my mind every time I bike up Observatory Drive, the lakes-hore road that brings you directly to the UW Madison campus, "Will this ever end? and "Why are mopeds so dirty?"

As I struggle for oxygen near the peak, I recognize that breathing would be a lot easier if I weren't also inhaling carbon-monoxide and unburned exhaust gasses from the screaming mopeds that are lurching by me.

Recall that there are two types of engines we use in the everyday, modern world, 2-strokes and 4-strokes. They are alternatively referred to as 2-cycle and 4-cycle. The difference between the two is how they work inside and also, that one is cleaner than the other.

Passenger vehicles such as this have a 4-cycle engine and are comparatively cleaner than 2-cycles. 

"The big transition to four stroke engines was because of emissions," says Professor Foster, Director of Engine Research Center at UW Madison. "It was more expensive to buy that engine but less polluting by the standpoint of the gasses coming out."

Professor Foster attributes the cleaner emissions of 4-stroke engines due to simple technological innovation. He also comments that 2-strokes can be just as clean as 4-strokes, but the tradeoff is cost.

So why is there still a mixture of 2-stroke and  4-stroke engines? Mopeds generally have 2-strokes, so do many boat motors. All four-wheeled passenger vehicles use 4-strokes as a result of regulatory pressures to clean their emissions. The continued mixture exists due to power outputs and namely, 2-cycles produce more of it. They have more "bang for their buck,"  so to say, but the tradeoff is a less-efficient combustion, meaning dirtier exhaust.

For a comparison between 2-strokes and 4-strokes, check out here and here.

2-stroke engines are still commonly used today for things such as mopeds and outboard boat motors and tug-boat engines. However, outboard motors, due to increased awareness of water pollution, have also made the transition to a 4-cycle platform.

Overall, Observatory Drive will remain temporarily clogged with the unburned, blue exhaust from passing mopeds, although 4-stroke designs have also been around for some time. On the plus side however, mopeds remain as an fuel efficient mode of transportation, averaging anywhere between 50-100 mpg.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Using Evolution as a Measure of the "Healthy" Diet

The fad of diets are seemingly just that, fads. They come and they go, but for as often as we see news clips about dieting trends, the question remains: What is the best diet for us?

It's the carbs that are bad, no wait, it's the fats, the sugars? As seen in the last post about diet, the dietary science world doesn't know exactly what constitutes the best meal, and certainly there is no one-size-fits-all kind.

One diet however, known as Paleolithic, bases its eating habits around our natural human evolution.

"One should eat only whole foods, focus on evolutionarily-raised (think grass-fed beef) animal meat and fats, and stay away from foods that are relatively new to our evolutionary history, such as dairy, grains, and legumes," wrote Derek Nedveck, BS in Biochemistry, who follows a paleolithic diet.

Nedveck added that the definition of Paleo is not subscribed to just one definition, but at the core it is based around the history of what humans ate as they lived, and evolved.

The Paleolithic diet argues against the consumption of grains due to the crops limited time in our 'evolutionary diet.
Image: Golden Sun by Antonio Quesada M

This natural layout of the diet is also based on a broader, whole foods approach.

"One of the other main ways of thinking about human nutrition is “nutritionism,” which is a focus on the individual parts of foods, and how they contribute to human health. From nutritionism we get fiber, omega-3, vitamin and mineral enriched foods, with the thought being that single components of a food can be added to others to achieve the same benefit, wrote Nedveck. "Paleo on the other hand values whole foods, partly due to the fact that we don't know everything that happens when we eat a food, and how the fiber in a sweet potato is digested in the presence of all the other things that make up the sweet potato. Moral of the story, nutritionism is reductionist, and paleo is more holistic."

Determining the ideal diet is difficult. To get an appreciable scientific answer would require long-term tests with a large sample group of people. A diet can be just one factor attributing to the overall health of a person, making the health effects of foods difficult to determine.

However, as for practical advice about diets, Nedveck comments "Try it out for a week, or better yet a month, and see how you feel."

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The World's Most Studied Lake

To learn about the world's most studied Lake, check out the video below:

According to emeritus Professor J. Magnuson of the UW Limnology department, Lake Mendota has historical research data going as far back as 1850. A snapshot of this history can be found here.

View Lake Mendota Research Madison, WI in a larger map
All images, audio and video done by Eric Verbeten, with the exception of those labeled otherwise

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Search for the Unknown (yet Visible) Clouds of the Universe

Below is a short sound slide featuring UW Madison graduate student Mark Stockett and his research project to understand what distant clouds in outer space are made of.

The composition of the universe is a fairly well-understood mixture of different substances. Standing out, however from the usual hydrogen, helium and rock structures found in the universe, are large solar system sized clouds called diffuse interstellar bands (DIBs) or interstellar clouds.

Mark Stockett is a UW Madison physicist is trying to understand exactly what these clouds are made of. And to do this he must recreate the same conditions found in outer space on Earth. The laboratory is located at the Synchrotron Radiation Center in Madison, WI. There, Stockett has access to a synchrotron which acts as a mock Sun. The outer space experiment consists of a vacuum chamber in the shape of a tube which is used to house various sample molecules.

“The important thing in doing an experiment like this is that you need the molecules to be in a similar state as they are in the interstellar clouds. So these molecules need to be very cold, because space is very cold,” said Stockett. “In the tube there is a large liquid nitrogen reservoir that cools the gas [molecules] inside to 200° Celsius below zero.”

Once the sample molecules are in a similar state to those that would be found in outer space, Stockett shines the synchrotron radiation onto the sample and takes a spectroscopic measurement to be later compared to the observed interstellar clouds spectrum seen in outer space.

Getting the conditions exactly right is difficult due to the extreme nature of outer space. Stockett and the project’s P.I. Jim Lawler, physics professor at UW Madison, have had problems with getting the conditions exact. The team has been dealing with problems with the sample molecules clumping together and not dispersing into the more uniform gas, as observed in outer space.
Stockett and Lawler plan to continue crafting the vacuum chamber with the goal to eventually have the ability to quickly canvas a wide-variety of sample molecules. This wide-sample range will ultimately create an index to compare against the complex spectrum observed in space, revealing the interstellar cloud’s true makeup.

Dilemma with Diet

Diets that come and go are like any other fad. However, the one aspect of each of those diets remains a constant, balanced mix of foods and regular exercise.

What constitutes the balanced mix of foods however, is still mysterious. The American diet has taken on a stigma to fats, the supposed heart disease causing agent. Recent articles have shed some interesting light onto this once, thought to be understood aspect of diet:

What if It's All Been a Big Fat Lie? -An article in the New York Times that details some of the controversy around the Atkin's diet and the still uncertain state of dietary science.

Another author, Gary Taubes's wrote: The Soft Science of Dietary Fat, which outlines a history of how the American diet came to criticize fats. He points to a few zealous congressmen who helped push the trend, despite the medical profession's admitted lack of certainty.

The U.S. Government Food Pyramid has undergone significant modifications in the last ten years (image: Wikipedia)

The diet issue, as noted in the two stories above, remains elusive at best. The last ten years has brought compelling stories about the typically, unthought-of food industry that is a daily part of our lives. From the documentary Super Size Me to Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food , and its catch phrase "Eat food, not too much, mostly plants," have brought at times shocking insight into our understandings of "how the sausage is made."

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Yo-Ho A Sailor's Life for Me

Stepping aside from the usual posts about science in the everyday world, I present a short clip about sailing and the intriguing vocabulary that comes with it when on the seas ( or lakes)

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Science Shows Deceiving?

Science shows on Discovery or the Science Channel have always been a part of my daily-knowledge-diet. After several years however, they began to repeat themselves and could no longer compete with my increasing factual knowledge as a result of my university training.

Television program where they investigate a wide-variety of man-made events and objects (image: Science Channel)
A recent talk by John Rennie, who served as editor-in-chief at Scientific American from '94-2009, speaks of the problems with the media's methods in regards to reporting science. Rennie points out that much of the news we receive about science are the things that were recently published in scientific journals and other forms. The problem with this system is that it can lead to confusion for readers.

A report on a scientific study that says: "Researchers have linked X with Y," can deceive a reader into feeling that these studies are the cutting-edge of our scientific knowledge. The more acceptable perspective is that these new studies are merely another piece of a puzzle, and that they are not entirely indicative of a solved mystery.

This ties into science programming after I saw a Science Channel episode of:

How Do They Do it?
"Super Cars" Building and designing the most advanced super cars in the world.

The problem arose from a segment on ethanol fuel cars. The show features a stylish, concept-style car driving around town while the narrator mentions facts about the cleanliness and fuel efficiencies of ethanol based automobiles. Although the show is meant to give glimpses of new technologies, the tone and enthusiasm behind the idea of ethanol was misleading.

Automobile capable of using ethanol fuel (image: luftfahrad - Wikipedia)

The show, in my mind, hyped the scale of ethanol's usage, making it seem like it corn-based fuel pumps were more common than they are.

This is not a criticism of "How Do They Do It," they have a target audience like any journalist. But by focusing only on the highlights, the information can deceive by painting an ideal picture that seems larger than it is, rather than showing one more piece of the puzzle.