Category Archives: physical sciences


Geologists Chip Away at Mystery of Climate’s Influence on Volcanoes

Watt, right, and Ferguson came across a series of roadcuts, some striated, like this one, with layers of basaltic scoria.

David Ferguson and his colleague Sebastian Watt (above) learned a lot from Chilean road cuts, some striated with layers of basaltic scoria.

If there’s a lesson David Ferguson has learned in his early years as a volcanologist, it’s this: Always carry a big hammer.

“You just have to pound away, smash as much rock as you can,” said Ferguson, a postdoc at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. “There’s nothing more frustrating than having gone all that way and then you discover your…


CO2 Level to Reach 400, Soon Enough

The Keeling Curve


Above all else, Charles D. Keeling was fastidious with his data.

A couple of years ago, I found myself on assignment at Mauna Loa Observatory, the U.S. weather station perched just below the summit of a Hawaiian volcano. Spurred by Keeling, a longtime climate scientist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, this lab—still not much more than a bunch of prefab white containers sited below lava breaks—has measured the accretion of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere for 55 ye…


Adding Insult to Plagiary?

Colin Purrington

Colin Purrington

Colin Purrington wrote a funny, helpful guide about designing scientific posters. It has loads of practical tips (don’t make it too long, use a nonserif font for titles, etc.) and jokes about the mating habits of cute red pandas. The guide has been remarkably popular—he estimates it’s been viewed about two million times over the years—and he gets e-mails thanking him all the time. It has become a claim to minor fame.

Sometimes people, um, borrow his guide without giving him cred…


Scientists Eye Volcanic Conclusion to Atmospheric Mystery


The Soufrière Hills eruption in Montserrat in 1995

Scientific outlines of global warming have remained relatively unchanged for decades. Climate scientists, however, armed with better satellites and long-term data, continue to refine their understanding of the jogs up and down that typify the planet’s surface temperature, which can remain flat for years at a time before rising again. There are many pieces to this puzzle, and for more than a decade, one mystery has been centered high in the sky, i…


Climate Scientist Charts an Early Start for the Epoch of Man

Ancient rice paddies released significant amounts of methane into the atmosphere, but scientists disagree on whether they helped trigger a change in climate.

When did the Epoch of Man begin?

In recent years, it’s become common to hear that the earth has entered the Anthropocene, a new geological time dominated by humanity. The term, very much a meme, unifies a host of environmental concerns—climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution. It’s so influential that the body governing geological time …


How Rude! Reader Comments May Undermine Scientists’ Authority

Boston — Scientists have a hard enough time getting people to understand what they’re talking about.

Their thoughts can be complicated. Their sentences can be laden with jargon. And their conclusions can offend political or religious sensibilities.

And now, to make things worse, readers have an immediate forum to talk back. And when some readers post uncivil comments at the bottom of online articles, that alone can raise doubts about the underlying science, a new study has found. Or at least rei…


Top-Ranked Journals Are Losing Their Share of Top-Cited Articles

In one of Dr. Seuss’s better-known tales of jealousy and prejudice, the Sneetches with stars on their bellies are considered superior to those without.

Now there’s more evidence that journals’ impact factors are similarly misleading.

A study published by three Canadian researchers has identified a two-decade-long trend in which the world’s top-ranked scientific journals are slowly losing their share of the most-cited articles.

The study, published in the November issue of the Journal of the Amer…


Scientists Offer New Formula to Predict Career Success

First there was the “impact factor.” Then came the “h-index.” Now, for those who believe that scientific prowess can be measured by statistical metrics, comes the Acuna-Allesina-Kording formula.

The formula, outlined on Wednesday in the journal Nature, is intended to improve upon the h-index—a tally of a researcher’s publications and citations—by adding a few more numerical measures of a scientist’s publishing history to allow for predictions of future success.

The idea, said the paper’s senio…


Blasting Rock and Hunting for Martian Life

ChemCam in action, in an artist’s view.

Early on Monday, after a tricky parachute descent, a hovering spacecraft will lower the new Mars rover, Curiosity, to the planet’s surface with long cables. If the nail-biting, never-before-tried maneuver works, the remote-controlled vehicle will begin searching for signs of water—and life. Bethany Ehlmann, an assistant professor at Caltech, will play a key role. From a control room in Pasadena, Calif., she will blow holes in rocks with a laser on the …


Art Flows Into Science: Rivers From Space



Forty years ago today, NASA launched its first Earth-observation satellite, Landsat. Data from the program, now on its eighth orbiter, have been used in climate-change studies, in ecology, and to show the effects of population growth.

Scientists have also noticed that some images are just visually amazing. (Particularly when the researchers add color to the pixels.)

Here are two of the most popular, voted on by 14,000 members of the public. The first contrasts the graceful oxbow bends of t…