2008: International Year of Planet Earth

This year has been designated as International Year of Planet Earth by the United Nations, backed by UNESCO and the International Union of Geological Sciences. The organizers aim to ensure greater use of the knowledge of the world’s Earth scientists, to benefit societies around the world. Science themes running through the year include health, climate, groundwater, ocean, soils, deep Earth, megacities, hazards, resources, and life.

Eldridge Moores, professor emeritus of geology at UC Davis, will be attending the official launch of the IYPE in Paris, Feb. 12-13, in his capacity as vice-president of the IUGS.

Particle physics on public radio today

UC Davis physicist Robin Erbacher will be on Capital Public Radio’s Insight talk show this afternoon at 2 pm. She will be talking about her work on the Top quark and the prospects for new discoveries in fundamental physics. This evening at 7.30 pm, Erbacher will give a public lecture on “To the Top and Beyond: Particle Physics and the New Century” in the ARC Ballroom.

More information here.

Cat DNA study confirms Middle East origins

A study of DNA from 11,000 cats (imagine getting cheek swabs from that many cats) confirms their origins in the “Fertile Crescent” of the Middle East, about the time people there started settling down, growing crops and looking for some way to keep the mice out of the grain store.

“This study confirms earlier research suggesting that the domestication of the cat started in the Fertile Crescent region,” said Monika Lipinski, lead researcher on the study and a doctoral candidate in the School of Veterinary Medicine. “It also provides a warning for modern cat fanciers to make sure they maintain a broad genetic base as they further develop their breeds.”

Mathematical genealogy: Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

Today’s Dateline has my story on “mathematical genealogy,” the practice of tracing family trees of mathematicians through their graduate students and doctoral advisors. This seems to have been started by topologists in the 1950s and was taken up by others, and now the American Mathematical Society runs a website where mathematicians can trace themselves back to Liebnitz or Gauss or whoever.

Computer visualization scientist Bernd Hamann, for example, traces his lineage back to Gauss and sees connections between their work. For example, the King of Hanover hired Gauss to survey his kingdom, using the triangulation method Gauss had invented. Today, computer graphics are built from small triangles, using the same principles.

Stardust samples not so starr-y

A paper out in Science tomorrow describes some detailed results from the Stardust space probe, which flew through the tail of a comet to catch dust samples and return them to Earth. Nigel Browning, a professor of chemical engineering and materials science at UC Davis, and graduate student Miaofang Chi are authors on the paper; both also hold positions at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab.

The LA Times has a story; here’s the press release from the Livermore Lab. Science also has a news article.

AGU updates climate change position; Focus the Nation Jan 31

The American Geophysical Union announced today that it has updated it’s official position on human impacts on climate change. The full statement can be found here.

“The Earth’s climate is now clearly out of balance and is warming,” the statement begins. It goes on to point out that even at the lowest limit of current predictions, the planet’s climate will change more in the next half-century than it has in the past thousand years. Greenhouse gas emissions must be dramatically reduced in the next century to avoid disruptive warming, it says.

FIRST Robotics revs up

FIRST Robotics, the robotics competition for high schoolers created by inventor Dean Kamen, launched its 2008 season earlier Jan 5 with the national kickoff event where teams got their first look at this year’s challenge and picked up their kit of parts. The teams have six weeks from the kickoff to design and build their robot, then take part in the regional and national competitions.

The Sacramento/Davis regional is once again taking place at the Pavilion (Rec Hall) on the UC Davis campus, March 20 to 22.

Stem cell therapy for animals

LiveScience.com reports on a San Diego company offering a stem cell therapy to treat arthritis, tendon and ligament problems in dogs. A veterinarian removes some fat from the dog and ships it to the company, which extracts adult stem cells from the fatty tissue and returns them in a ready-to-use syringe. Presumably, the idea is that these are stem cells that can fairly readily turn into connective tissue and repair damage.

“We’ve seen stem cell therapy help dogs whose pain was previously so severe that they struggled to stand, jump into cars, chase balls or run up and down stairs,” said Robert Harman, DVM, and founder of Vet-Stem.

Vitamin D gets a place in the Sun

Medianews group’s Suzanne Bohan writes about new research on Vitamin D. Long known to be important for strong, healthy bones, researchers are now finding that the vitamin plays a role in preventing a wide range of diseases including cancer and heart disease.

Bohan notes that UC Davis recently won a federal grant for studies on vitamin D and disease, especially in minority populations. New work by researchers affiliated with the Center for Nutritional Genomics, in fact, shows that the standard recommended dose — 400 international units per day — may be far too low.

First butterfly of the year goes to Art Shapiro, again

Evolution and ecology Professor Arthur Shapiro has been offering a pitcher of beer to the first person to bring in a newly-emerged Cabbage White (Pieris rapae) butterfly for the past 36 years. He nearly always wins himself (but had a narrow escape last year).

And once again, the honors go to… Professor Shapiro. He takes up the story in his inimitable way:

Professor Arthur M. Shapiro of the Center for Population Biology, UC Davis, won his own butterfly-for-beer contest again this year, snagging the first Pieris rapae of 2008 at 1:06 pm, Saturday, January 19, near the I-80 bridge over the railroad tracks in West Sacramento.