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Starting S216: Environmental Science

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My S216: Environmental Science course materials have arrived! Cue much rejoicing, general study planning, and a little list-making.

A brief aside on the topic of world maps:

Among the six books and the DVD pack was also a wall map of the Earth's surface. It's the Mercator projection, which has always bothered me. People's sense of geography is not based upon fact, but upon the Mercator map, and has been ever since it was first produced in 1569.

What we think the world looks like...

Representing a spherical object on a flat surface is always going to present problems, but the Mercator projection is not even close to being area accurate... Africa is frickin' huge. MASSIVE. As is South America. The main problem with this map is that the further the land mass is from the equator, the more its size is distorted. Thus, Greenland becomes a similar size to Africa.

However, in 1855, a clergyman named James Gall produced his own version of a map of the world, known as the Gall-Peters Projection. This has its drawbacks, too, but the areas represented are much more accurate. See - the northern hemisphere is puny in terms of landmass size compared to the south:

How the world really looks...

Back to the books:

Anyway. That's enough of maps (although I LOVE maps - if anyone wants to buy me antique maps, feel free).

The first block of S216 is a virtual field trip to the Teign Valley in Devon, and is DVD based. Then we're on to the books, which sound very interesting indeed...

Book 2: Air and Earth.

Part One - Air: We'll be looking at the atmosphere. It's cold outside, and there is an atmosphere. I'm all alone, more or less. Then there's the weather, and weather observations. Followed by the ins and outs of the atmosphere, and the global weather machine including ocean circulation and that pesky El Niño.

Part Two - Earth: Comprising rocks and minerals; igneous rocks; metamorphic rocks; fragmentary rocks; and the weathering of rocks and minerals. Then there's an introduction to soil - what it is; soil ecosystems; and soil processes and properties in the environment. I've got to be honest; this section doesn't sound so interesting...

Book 3: Water and Life. This is quite an alarmingly thick book.

Part One - Water: All types of water. What happens to rain? Ground water; a journey down a river; and the hydrological cycle. I like water. I'm reading a biography of water at the moment, and it's bloody fascinating. Water is strange stuff; it doesn't obey the usual laws of liquids. There is nothing as sweet as water when you're really, really thirsty.

Part Two - Life: Vegetation patters; resources to support life; and ecological dynamics. This is one of my areas of interest because I am a tree-hugging hippy who wants to save the world, one turtle at a time.

Book 4: Landforms and Cycles. This is a more reassuringly thin book.

Part One - Landforms: A bit of physical geography, which I loved at school, and which has stayed with me throughout adulthood. The way the Earth's roots works fascinates me. So we'll start with plate tectonics and an introduction to landforms, looking at lithology, and how water shapes the landscape inland and at the coasts. Then we look at ice, and wind, and finally landforms in space and time.

Book 5:

  • Extreme weather
  • Atmospheric chemistry and pollution
  • Wetlands and the carbon cycle
  • Cryosphere

Book 6:

  • Oceans and climate (this one, I'm looking forward to)
  • Water quality
  • Eutrophication
  • Acid rain

Book 7:

  • Grasslands
  • Tropical forests
  • Biological conservation

Books 5, 6 and 7 are going to interest me particularly. This is a beast of a module, and I'm under no illusions as to how much work I'm going to need to put in. Structuring my life is going to be incredibly important over the next few months, so that I have time to spend with my husband, my friends and my family - not to mention the me-time that will be spent doing yoga and pole dancing.

But last year was fiercely busy, and I enjoyed it immensely. So I'm not fazed; and in fact, I can't wait. Bring on 2012. I'm ready for you.

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Biological joviality

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Edited by Vicky Fraser, Wednesday, 13 July 2011, 14:00

I've the afternoon off work to complete the Tutor Marked Assessment for Book 5: Life. And I haven't blogged in a while. I am also Sick with an unknown malaise of the throat. So, I give you: Biology Jokes!*

Biology is the only science in which multiplication is the same thing as division!

Did you hear about the famous microbiologist who traveled in thirty different countries and learned to speak six languages? He was a man of many cultures.

Confucius once said, "When you breathe, you inspire, and when you do not breathe, you expire."

The bad news is that the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Amoebas is shrinking. The good news is that none of the amoebas has lost any of their members.

At NIH (National Institute of Health), there is a sign on the door of a microbiology lab that reads "STAPH ONLY!"

Q: What is the fastest way to determine the sex of a chromosome? A: Pull down its genes.

The teacher asks, "Jessica, what part of the human body increases ten times when excited?" Jessica blushes and says, "That's disgusting, I won't even answer that question."

The teacher calls on Johnny: "What part of the human body increases ten times when excited?" "That's easy," says Johnny. "It's the pupil of the eye."

"Very good, Johnny," responds the teacher. "That's correct."

She then turns to Jessica and says, "First, you didn't do your homework. Second, you have a dirty mind. And third, you're in for a BIG disappointment."

A man goes into a bar and asks: "Can I have a pint of energy please?" The barman pulls the pint and says: "That'll be 80p please!"

Enzymes are things invented by biologists that explain things which otherwise require harder thinking.

Did you hear about the biologist who had twins? She baptized one and kept the other as a control.

One day the zoo-keeper noticed that the orang-utang was reading two books - the Bible and Darwin's Origin of Species. In surprise he asked the ape, "Why are you reading both those books?"

"Well," said the orang-utang, "I just wanted to know if I was my brother's keeper or my keeper's brother."

It has recently been discovered that research causes cancer in rats.

I do apologise. I'll get me coat! *Shamelessly stolen from the Internet.

Permalink 2 comments (latest comment by Jameela Bi, Wednesday, 13 July 2011, 21:03)
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Welcome to the Dark Side...

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…we have glucose…

Well, I promised you Photosynthesis Part II, and here it is. I have to say, I was most disappointed that it didn’t involve Voldemort, or a dark lord of any kind. Not even the Sith.

Anyway. The dark reactions are so called not because they take place in the dark, necessarily, but because they take place independently of the light – and the only place they happen is within the stroma of the chloroplast.

The light reactions gave us ATP and NADP.2H, which are used to drive the dark reactions. ATP provides energy for the process, while NADP.2H reduces (adds hydrogen to) carbon dioxide to a carbohydrate – a process also known as carbon fixing. So, if you like, ATP gives a plant enough energy to get its carbon fix.

The natural world is great at recycling – REALLY great at it. As NADP.2H is reducing carbon dioxide to a carbohydrate, it is, itself, being oxidised back to NADP – ready to be reused as an electron acceptor in the light reactions.

The whole process of the dark reactions is known as the Calvin cycle, after its discoverer – Melvin Calvin, whose parents had a terrible sense of humour when it came to baby names. I find it quite astonishing that back in 1945, scientists were able to delve this deeply into a plant cell and find out exactly what was going on.

A sugar phosphate with three carbon atoms as its backbone is the first product of the Calvin cycle, and it requires quite a lot of energy to make:

3CO2 + 9ATP + 6NADP.2H → 3C sugar phosphate + 9ADP + 8Pi + 6NADP

Some of the sugar phosphate is used as energy in the cytosol of the cell; the rest is converted into glucose phosphate and fructose phosphate, both of which are 6C sugars. These then combine to form sucrose, and lose their phosphate groups. Sucrose is transported around the plant for energy.

Photosynthesis is extremely well regulated and very efficient. Not to mention the fact that the light reactions are a truly renewable energy source – scientists are looking at their mechanisms, and wondering how to use the key components in artificial, light-driven fuel cells.

This is a brilliant idea, and I would suggest that any youth with an interest in photosynthesis, plant biology, and industry should get themselves on the rung of that ladder. It’s not just a career with a future; you may well be able to save our planet. And THAT is priceless.

This has been an exercise in ensuring that I understand photosynthesis; it’s rather complicated, you see. And it doesn’t make terribly interesting reading – so I promise that is the last long, boring explanation of a biological process there will be in this blog.

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Why I love science

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Most people who know me will know that I love science because I want to save the world. I’m horrified at what we’re doing to the planet and its beautiful animals and plants.

However, the other reason I love science is because of people like this extraordinary young lady: Krissi Fox.

I only discovered that she exists today. She has Acute Myeloid Leukemia, and blogs about it. Reading her blog may make you cry. But I’m almost positive that it will inspire you to be a slightly better person smile

Good luck Krissi. I think you’re amazing.

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A fear conquered; or, musings on moles

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mole.jpegI am no longer afraid of moles! No, not the little furry buggers that make a mess of your lawn. The once-frightening, but now benign, number used in chemistry so that your head doesn't explode due to excess zeros.

A mole - also known as Avogadro's number - is 6.02 x 10²³ "things". So, one mole of oxygen atoms contains 6.02 x 10²³ atoms. That's quite a large number. So large, that most people can't get their heads around it.

Here's an analogy: one mole of marshmallows would cover the United States of America to a depth of around 6,500 miles*. That is a LOT of marshmallows.

One mole of moles (the little furry buggers this time) would, if placed end-to-end, stretch 11 million light years, and weigh almost as much as the moon.*

Water flows over Niagara Falls at about 650,000 kL (172,500,000 gallons) per minute. At this rate it would take 134,000 years for one mole of water drops (6.02 x 1023 drops) to flow over Niagara Falls.*

Anyway, enough analogies. Suffice it to say, it's a remarkably large number. Far too large to do anything practical with. So, chemists use the mole as a form of shorthand. At school, I hated chemistry specifically because of moles; I just couldn't get my head around it.

So it was with a sense of trepidation that I approached Book 4: The Right Chemistry.

My fears, however, were unfounded. I'm really, really, enjoying this book! The maths tackled so far has really helped to beat back the terrors of Very Large Numbers, and the book is great at explaining difficult concepts in simple terms.

I do think it helps that I am reading We Need to Talk About Kelvin when I'm not studying. This, too, is a cracking book that manages to explain extremely complicated ideas in layman's terms. Doing a bit of reading around the subject definitely helps to seal ideas into your mind, and allows them to take hold.

Anyway - I digress. I was talking about the mole, and its eternal usefulness.

avogadro.jpegOne mole of any substance contains 6.02 x 10²³ atoms, molecules or ions (whichever is most appropriate) of that substance. So, one mole of marshmallows contains 6.02 x 10²³ marshmallows; one mole of water contains 6.02 x 10²³ water molecules; one mole of mercury contains 6.02 x 10²³ mercury atoms.

And, one mole of any substance has a mass equal to the relative mass of that substance, expressed in grams. So one mole of oxygen atoms has a mass of 16.0 g; one mole of oxygen molecules (it's a diatomic molecule, see) has a mass of 32.0 g. With me?

The Avogadro hypothesis (named after Amadeo Avogadro, an Italian physicist who died in 1856) asserts that this is true. Actually, it asserts that equal volumes of different gases, at the same temperature and pressure, contain equal numbers of molecules. Which is beautifully simple, and has the far-reaching consequences I mentioned above.

It enables the mass of any given substance to be translated directly into numbers of molecules (or atoms) using the Avogadro constant: the mole.

Thus: the number of moles of a substance is equal to the mass of that substance divided by the molar mass of the substance.

E.g. How many moles are in 52 g of water? Well, the molar mass of water is (2 x 1.01) + 16.0 = 18.02 g mol‾¹

So the number of moles in the water = 52 g divided by 18.02 g mol‾¹ = 2.89 mol (3 significant figures). There are 2.89 moles of water molecules in 52 g of water.


And the scariest thing? I'm quite enjoying it all! Next, I shall enthuse about covalent bonds. They are this: aces.

*I can't claim the credit for these analogies. They came from a rather cool chemistry site.

Permalink 1 comment (latest comment by Roo N, Wednesday, 4 May 2011, 21:56)
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